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The Forest Boy

July, 2009
A prequel to The Cloud Roads



When Tren was younger, he had been afraid of the settlement's midden. He had imagined every monster from Ari's stories lurking in the piles of broken pottery and rotten fruit rinds.

Now going there was one of his more interesting chores, especially on a breezy summer day. The big flat leaves of the round-trees, stacked like plates all the way up the tall slim trunks, filtered the hot sun into cool green shade. Tren always went with Lua, his favorite foster sister, and they searched for thrown-away things that were still useful, like broken bits of carved wood and colorful glazed ceramic, and puzzled over the strange objects that travelers on the Long Road had cast aside. They wound their way along the grass pathways between the piles of rubbish, and the white birds called and the treelings chirped and played high above them. They didn't go near the darker deeper forest beyond the fringe, where everyone knew the dangerous predators lurked.

Kaleb, Tren's foster father, had remarked on the change, noting how Tren now seemed to consider the trip to the midden an outing rather than a chore. "I'm not afraid of it anymore," Tren had told him, reluctantly honest. He hated to admit that he had been afraid in the first place, but he wanted Kaleb to know he was a grown-up of twelve seasonal turns now, past such childish fancies.

Instead of saying that Tren was now assuming his adult responsibilities, like Tren expected, Kaleb said, "You aren't afraid anymore because you've learned there was nothing to fear. Are you still afraid of the forest?" Tren had nodded, and Kaleb had said, "Good. That's a good fear, to keep you safe."

This morning Tren and Lua had dumped the basket of household refuse, and moved on to investigate a new pile of rubbish probably left by the trading caravan that had passed down the Long Road yesterday. It was mostly broken glass and looked as if someone had tossed out a whole wagonload. "Why would they leave all this?" Tren wondered, digging past unraveled grass baskets to uncover a store of pieces as blue as the sky at high summer. "Are they crazy?"

Lua held up a shard from another basket, red as blood, curved as if it had been part of a vase or funnel. "Maybe somebody died, and they didn't want to carry her trade goods anymore." She was small for a Mirani, a head shorter than Tren, and everyone assumed she was younger. The Mirani all had green-tinged skin and light-colored hair, blond or very light brown, like Tren. Lua had dark hair and her skin was closer to gray-green in winter, pale green in summer. She was a mix of Mirani and something else, and Tren had heard whispers in the settlement that that was why she had been dumped on the Long Road for Kaleb to find. Sometimes Tren thought she was older than him, just shorter than she should be for her age.

Noting that the glass all seemed to be shattered, nothing whole, he said more practically, "Or the baskets fell over and this is everything that broke." Tren had been with Kaleb and his wife Ari for four of his twelve turns, in their house under the biggest oldest round-tree at the edge of the Mirani settlement. The house held six children, none of them actually birthed by Ari. The couple took in the unwanted young of this settlement and those further up the Long Road. And children like Tren, whose parents had died and left him with nowhere else to go.

He and Lua half-filled their basket with glass, with no clear idea of what to do with it except that such beauty shouldn't go to waste. Then something rustled somewhere in the piles about thirty paces away, toward a thicker stand of trees. Tren froze, glancing at Lua to see if she was afraid. Lua just cocked her head, intrigued. "What is it?" she whispered.

"A monster, from the deep forest." Tren dropped his voice to its lowest register, mocking their younger foster brother Melic, who liked to tell scare-you stories, badly and to excess. The only animals who came to the midden were the fringe scavengers, small flightless birds and harmless treelings.

Lua snorted, standing and shaking bits of glass out of her smock. "Let's find out."

They split up, Tren creeping one way, Lua the other. It was very like when they had both been younger, playing hunter by stalking the settlement's small sumptor herd. The sumptors were big and calm and had mostly eyed them without interest, refusing to cooperate by running and hiding.

The faint noise came from a big pile of old food trash. As Tren eased up on it, he caught a glimpse of Lua's dark hair as she made her way around the other side. Then Tren heard a metallic crash, and Lua called out, "Here, back here!"

Tren bolted around the pile, hearing something flap, like one of the giant deep-forest birds. Only it was frighteningly close rather than high overhead. He slid to a halt, startled, but what he saw was Lua, standing and staring at a boy crouched in the grass.

The boy wasn't a Mirani. He had brown skin and short dark hair, and under his tattered dirty shirt and pants he looked as skinny as if he had been starved. He was staring back at Lua, dirt smudges on his face, his eyes terrified. At first Tren thought he was awkwardly crouched atop a broken metal plow shaft, and he couldn't think why anyone would choose such an uncomfortable seat. Then the boy collapsed, slumping forward; Tren saw the blood on his calf below the torn leg of his pants, the serrated metal clamping the bronze skin.

Tren gasped, shocked. The metal shaft wasn't part of a broken plow, it was the snap-bar of a trap. "Lua, run and get Kaleb!" he shouted, and she ran.

As her steps pounded away down the path, he edged a little closer to the unmoving boy, getting a better look at the metal teeth clamped into his leg. The bile rose in his throat; he had seen dead people, and broken limbs and sickness, but nothing like this, never a bloody wound caused by something so cruel. And what was the trap doing here anyway, in the midden where he or Lua might have been caught too? He wanted to do something for the boy, but the teeth of the trap were sunk in so deeply he was afraid to touch it.

Finally Tren heard people running down the grass path. Kaleb arrived in a frantic rush, two more men from the settlement on his heels. Tren pointed mutely at the boy; Kaleb saw the trap and used words Tren had never heard him speak before. He had never seen Kaleb look so furious and so horrified, and it made Tren feel even more sick. Kaleb pushed him toward the path and said, "Go on now, go back home," and Tren ran, grateful to escape.

He found Lua standing in the sunny patch of bellflowers just past the fringe, where the pathway curved back toward the settlement. He took a big gulp of air, the fresh breeze clearing the stench of blood and rotted food from his lungs. Lua had her arms tightly folded as if she was cold. Breathless, she said, "Did you see?"

Tren nodded. "It was a trap for predators. Who would put it there?"

Lua looked up at him, blinking, as if he wasn't making sense. "What?" Tren asked her, wondering what he had missed. He had been so shaken by the sight of the injured boy, he hadn't looked for anything else. "What did you see?"

She shook her head, and didn't answer. Then Kaleb came out of the midden, carrying the unconscious boy, and Tren forgot that he had ever asked her the question.


***


The Mirani settlement lay in a big clearing between the curve of the river and the Long Road, among flower-covered hills and scattered round-trees. The houses were wood and stone, built against the hills and dug into them where possible, surrounded by gardens and fruit bushes.

Kaleb carried the boy back to their home, to one of the sleeping rooms that was built half into the hill beside the house, the one that was always cool in the summer and warm in the winter. None of the children were allowed in the room, and for three days there was no sight or sound of the boy.

On the first day the settlement's healer came and went twice, and Kaleb spoke to him outside. Their voices were low and serious, reminding Tren uncomfortably of the illness that had taken his parents. All the children were subdued, especially Lua, who watched the doorway of the sleeping room as if expecting something startling to come out of it. Ari carried in water and towels and spent most of the day with the boy.

Hearing how terrible the trap was, everyone in the settlement thought the boy would die, and neighbors brought them bread, pottage, and even some spicecakes, as if he had been part of the settlement instead of a stranger. There were angry mutters about the trap, and the stupidity of whoever had left it there. The chief hunter reported to Kaleb that it had probably been thrown away by someone on the Long Road who hadn't known how to use it, and hadn't realized it was still set. Tren and Lua and all the other children were forbidden to go back to the midden until it had been thoroughly searched, to make certain the same someone hadn't dumped anything else dangerous there.

But the second day the healer came and went again, and afterward Kaleb, looking relieved, told them, "Not as bad as it looked, not nearly as bad. Fever's down and he's much better today."

"Who is he?" Sarin, the oldest boy in the house, asked what they had all been wondering. "Where did he come from?"

Ari, about to carry another bowl of water into the room, answered, "He won't tell us his name, poor thing. Kaleb asked if he was looking for food in the midden, and he nodded, but that's all we know."

On the third night, after supper, the boy was so much better Ari could spend more time with them. She felt like telling a story, and they all sat around on the grass mats on the floor of the main room to listen. Ari sat on her carved stool, Kaleb at her feet, and leaned forward, her eyes sparkling. "This is about the Ghobin, and the village of Mirani-Gedin."

Tren had heard the Ghobin story before, and shivered in anticipation. Ari told the best scare-you stories in the settlement. They all settled in to listen; Lua pulled her blanket around her and leaned against Tren, Melic climbed into Sarin's lap and Lys and Klia edged closer together. The Ghobin were a predator race, who lived in burrows in the deep forest far to the west. When they attacked a settlement, they tunneled underground, up under the houses, breaking through the floors to swarm out and kill the inhabitants. They were small, so their preferred prey was children. The first time Ari had told this story, Tren had been afraid to set foot on the dirt floor of the stillroom for six days.

Even with repetition, the story of how the Mirani-Gedin defeated the Ghobin was so absorbing that everyone listened intently. They didn't notice someone else was listening until Ari paused; she touched Kaleb's shoulder and nodded toward the back of the room.

Tren twisted to look, dislodging Lua.

The new boy was huddled in the doorway of the sleeping room, watching them. He had crept out so quietly no one had heard a thing. He was as skinny and strange and wide-eyed as Tren remembered, but the blood and dirt had been washed away, and he wore an oversized shirt that belonged to Kaleb. His leg was wrapped in a clean bandage, and he should have looked much better. But his eyes were still afraid. He could have been facing a room full of Ghobin rather than harmless Mirani.

Suddenly Lua leapt to her feet and ran into the other sleeping room. Everyone stared after her, baffled. She couldn't be afraid of the injured boy; Lua was the bravest girl in the settlement, and besides, he was clearly the one who was afraid of them.

She reappeared almost immediately, holding her old doll, a battered collection of tied rags that Ari had given her turns ago when she had first arrived here. It hadn't changed much since the last time Tren had seen it, except it was even more dirty and tattered. She must have been keeping it stuffed under her sleeping mat.

Lua started toward the boy, moving slowly as if she was trying to approach a wounded animal. The boy watched her with wary mistrust. She stopped in front of him and sat on her heels; he was still taller than she was, even sitting down huddled against the doorframe. She held out the doll, pressing it against his hand until his fingers closed around it. Then she whispered, "I won't tell."

The boy's eyes widened. He looked at the doll and then at Lua. Something seemed to pass between them, something that made his shoulders slump and the tension leave his body.

"What's your name, little one?" Kaleb said softly.

The boy hesitated, bit his lip, and said, "Moon."

Ari asked, "Did you leave your family, Moon?"

Moon hesitated, so long Tren didn't think he would answer. But then he said, "They were killed." His grip on the doll tightened, as if it was giving him courage to trust them, and he added, "We lived in the forest. My mother, my sister and brothers."

"You lived in the forest? That's--" Kaleb began, then Ari caught his sleeve and gave him a meaningful glare. Tren supposed he had been about to say it was dangerous to go near the forest, which is what Kaleb always said. Tren was pretty certain that Moon would know that already, if his family had been killed in it. Kaleb cleared his throat and instead said, "Where did this happen?"

Moon sat up a little straighter. "Much further east."

"But where have you been living?" Ari asked.

Moon frowned down at the doll. Then Lua said, "You were alone on the Long Road, following caravans?"

Moon glanced at her, then told Kaleb, "That's it, that's what I was doing."

Tren thought Moon didn't want to say what he had been doing, and wondered if he had been a thief. That would be exciting. He tried to catch Lua's eye, but she was still watching Moon. Kaleb started to ask another question, but Ari said, "That's enough for now. He needs to rest."


***


As his leg healed, Moon gradually grew more easy around them, and lost the tense look of someone who expected something terrible to happen at any moment. He was limping too badly to leave the house and yard, but he played pebble games with Melic and Klia and Lys, and helped them build miniature farms and towns out of sticks and dirt, ignoring the unspoken rule that said if you wanted to be grown-up, you didn't play with babies. He didn't talk much, but this didn't seem to bother the younger children. Tren saw Kaleb watching Moon play with them, and heard him say to Ari, "He's not a wild boy, he's been raised by someone."

"You had doubts?" she asked, scrubbing briskly at the big cooking pot.

"One or two," he admitted. "Living in the forest, after all."

Ari made a derisive noise, nodding to where Lys was ordering Moon to lay the game pieces out and he was complacently obeying her. Ari said, "Not likely."

Moon spent the most time with Lua. In the evening they sat in the corner beside the warming hearth and talked in quiet voices, more than Moon talked to anybody else. Lua had never talked to anybody that much before either, except Tren. Moon also watched her draw, apparently fascinated by it, though he never tried to do it himself, even when she offered to share her slate.

Watching them together, Tren felt the first stirrings of dislike. "Come down to the river," he urged her one evening. "The fisherwoman says the mudcrabs will be out."

She shook her head, bending over her slate, while Moon handed her the drawing stone. "We'll stay here."

Tren had gone with Sarin, not happily. Since they were much younger, Tren and Lua had always planned to marry and build a big house on the river, and be fishers, a chore they both enjoyed. Granted, sometimes they had planned to run away and be Road pirates, but age and time had suggested that that probably wouldn't be a very good way to live.

Lua's promise not to tell anyone that she had given Moon her doll was wasted. Once Ari judged him well enough to venture out into the rest of the settlement, Moon kept it with him, tucked through his belt under his borrowed shirt. Any other boy who did such a thing would have been teased unmercifully and there would have been fights, but Moon was so odd and different that everything he did seemed normal for him. Also, he was taller than any other boy close to his age. Tren noticed that the older boys who might have been inclined to start trouble always seemed to think better of it, when confronted with Moon's size, wiry strength, and direct gaze.

Moon's only failing was that he ate as much as Tren and Sarin put together. Despite that, Kaleb was growing pleased with him. "Boy's got big hands and feet for his size," he told a neighbor. "He's going to be the tallest man in the settlement."

The neighbor nodded agreement. "He'll come in handy when it's fruit-picking season."

Chores did go much faster once Moon was able to help, because he didn't seem to get tired as long as he could eat. He helped with everything, with digging the toba from the fields near the river, grinding grain so Ari could make bread, weeding root patches, carrying water, washing the clothes and blankets. The only thing he couldn't do was help tend the sumptors. The big slow creatures didn't like him, tending to growl and sidle whenever he came within their limited sight. The chief herder thought it was because Moon wasn't Mirani, that the beasts must be reacting to the different way he looked. But still, with Moon around, Tren found he and the other children had more time in the late afternoon for play.

That was when Tren really started to dislike him.

He wasn't a fool, he knew it was jealousy, like the jealous herder in one of Ari's stories who lost his herd by trying to make it bigger than those his neighbors owned. He had been hearing that story and more like it for four turns, he didn't need it spelled out any more clearly. Moon was big, strong, helpful, good to everyone, and everyone in the house liked him. He also had the added mystery of being a wild boy from the Long Road, without any of the dirty or violent habits a real wild boy might have. This fact had not been lost on the older girls in the settlement, who had already started to watch him with surreptitious longing. Not that Moon seemed to notice.

But knowing it was jealousy didn't seem to help Tren make it go away, It just made it worse, since now he could feel guilty about being jealous.

Tren had suffered like this for nearly a month, when Kaleb called for him and Moon to help carry a load of medicine herbs to the Long Road, where a trader wagon from another settlement was waiting for it.

As Tren, Moon, and Kaleb carried the baskets, Kaleb said, "The herdman told me this morning that one of the sumptor bucks was killed and gutted down by the river, near the western fringe of the forest. You two take care and stay away from there for a while. It's not often something comes out of the forest, but when it does, it's always bad."

Tren nodded glumly, but Moon said, "Not everything in the forest is bad."

"But it's still dangerous." Kaleb's voice was stern. "You should know that better than anyone."

Moon looked away, and Tren saw his jaw tighten. Tren wandered if Moon would argue with Kaleb, and he felt guilty for hoping they might. But instead, Moon asked, "Why didn't Lua come?"

Tren simmered. It wasn't going to take long to deliver the herbs, surely Moon could stand to be separated from Lua for that long.

"Didn't need anyone else to carry this, with you two along," Kaleb answered.

Tren slowed his steps, let Kaleb get a little way ahead, then said in a low voice, "The boys from this settlement are mean to her, because she's not all the way Mirani." Moon had to know these things, if he was going to marry Lua as seemed inevitable at the moment.

Moon frowned. "She isn't?"

Tren wasn't surprised Moon hadn't noticed. Lua had pointed out to him that the children with the traders and travelers from other places didn't notice either, and didn't tease her for it. It had occurred to Tren that Lua might prefer to live somewhere like Kish, where according to Kaleb there were lots of different kinds of people mixed together, and no one would care what Lua was. The fact that Moon would probably be happy to go there with her didn't improve his mood any. He said, sullenly, "She's half Mirani. The other traders don't tease her, just these boys."

Moon watched him a long moment, brows knit with that thoughtful expression where you couldn't tell if he understood or not. Then his mouth quirked in a quick smile, and he said, "Do you think they'll tease me?"

This time it was Tren who tightened his jaw and looked away. It was worse that Moon was nice to him, too. He said, grimly, "You're not half anything, you're just you."

Moon didn't reply.

They reached the Road, the high gray wall of it emerging from the heavy green forest and cutting through a grassy meadow, the edge of the settlement's clearing. It was made of weathered stone and stood a good twenty paces high, and the top was nearly sixty paces wide.

The Long Road made it possible for traders and travelers to get through the forest, and for the settlement to trade roots and fruit and fish for things they couldn't make for themselves. It had been built so long ago no one remembered when or who or how. Kaleb had told them that the Road ran all the way east, to the sea which was called the Gulf of Abascene, and all the way west, to the edge of Kish. But those places were as distant as the clouds, as far as the Mirani were concerned.

A path led to the carved stairs that climbed the Road's side, and velvety little plants grew in the cracks between the huge stones. From here Tren could see the wagon waiting up on the road, the four sumptors that pulled it standing patiently.

"Better stay down here," Kaleb reminded Moon, "You know how the beasts startle around you."

Moon stopped obediently at the bottom of the steps, and Tren continued up with Kaleb, his mood not improved by the fact that he was going to have to make a second trip for Moon's basket, too.

Kaleb greeted the adult traders, and moved around the bulk of the wagon with them to talk. The two older boys who caused the most trouble, Gavin and Nelit, were nowhere in sight. That was a small mercy.

Tren deposited his basket, went down the stairs again for the second load. But as he put it down beside the wagon, something shoved him from behind, and he fell against the wagon bed, scraping his arm on the rough wood. He whipped around, glaring, and found himself facing Gavin and Nelit. Gavin grinned and said, "Where's your half-breed girlfriend?"

There were a lot of replies Tren could have made, but he was in a bad mood already, and this was all he needed. He said, "She couldn't stand the stink of you and your brother the treeling," and spit at Gavin's feet.

Gavin shoved Tren again, hard, his back thumping against the wagon bed.

Moon was suddenly there, right beside Tren. He must have hurtled up the steps, but he wasn't even breathing hard. He studied Gavin, head cocked to one side. He said, "Don't do that again."

"Or what?" Gavin grinned, and shoved Moon hard in the shoulder. Only Moon didn't shove. He just stood there. He didn't even sway backward. It was like Gavin had shoved a skinny tree instead of a skinny boy.

Moon stepped forward, eye to eye with Gavin. "Do you really want to find out?"

Gavin drew back, watching him with real fear. Nelit, never the brave one, had already retreated a dozen paces down the Road.

The wagon-sumptors lowed uneasily, and from behind the wagon, Kaleb yelled, "Moon, are you up here?"

"No," Tren called back, urging Moon toward the stairs.

Moon went, and Gavin, encouraged, said, "You'd better go!"

Moon laughed, and hopped down the stairs as if nothing had happened. Then he looked at Tren's grim face. "What's wrong?"

"I didn't need your help," Tren said through gritted teeth.

"Did you want to get beat up?" Moon clearly didn't see the problem. "You should have said something earlier."

Tren hit him in the chest. It was like hitting a rock. Moon just looked hurt, and Tren stamped off, feeling like the worst person in the settlement.


***


The next day, after Kaleb had set them free from their chores, Lua said, "I want you to come to the midden with me and Moon. We want to show you something."

Obviously, they meant to tell him that they had planned to be married. Not immediately, of course, but in a few turns when Lua was old enough. Tren didn't want to hear that. He said, sulkily, "We're not supposed to go near the fringe for a while, because something killed that sumptor."

"That was toward the west, not the east where the midden is," she said impatiently. "Come on."

Tren went, reluctantly. Moon was waiting for them at the top of the path to the midden. For some reason, he seemed almost as reluctant as Tren. "This was your idea," Lua told him, prodding him along down the path.

Moon shrugged and dragged his feet all the way.

Once there, Tren and Moon, by an unspoken temporary accord, poked around through the piles, looking for anything new and interesting. There wasn't much of a breeze, but the late afternoon sun was filtered to a cool green by the big leaves, and the usual complement of treelings squealed and squeaked high in the branches.

"Well?" Lua folded her arms, determined to keep them from stalling any longer. "Nobody's here."

"Wait." Moon was looking toward the shadows under the thicker trees, the ones that marked the end of the fringe and the beginning of the forest. He frowned. "I smell something."

Of course he smelled something, they were standing in the trash heap. "It's rotting guts," Tren said, annoyed.

"No, under that."

"How do you smell something under another smell--"

It leapt down from a high branch, landing hard in the grass, barely twenty paces from them.

It stood up from a crouch. It was shaped like a man, and wore rough hide clothing, but its skin looked like hardened pale leather, ridged and scarred. Its face seemed to be all staring black eyes and huge round fanged mouth. Lua screamed. Tren's breath strangled in his throat. "It's a Tath," Moon said, his voice calm and tight.

Tath. Ari told stories about Tath. They lived in the forest, they climbed trees, and they ate whatever they could catch.

The Tath snarled and lunged toward Lua. Moon lunged for it, but in mid-motion, he changed.

It happened fast, but not so fast there was any doubt about what happened. One moment Moon was Moon, running toward the Tath, then the air around him blurred as if he passed through a dark cloud, and then he was...something else.

He landed between Lua and the Tath. He was taller, his shoulders broader. His skin had darkened from brown to black, a shiny black made up of tiny jewel-like scales. He had long curving claws on his hands and feet and a long tail, and a mane of spines around his head, running down between the lumpy ridges on his back.

The Tath recoiled with a snarl, and Moon leapt on it. They rolled in the grass, snarling, fighting. Then the Tath threw Moon off, leapt to its feet, and ran right toward Tren.

Tren turned to bolt and made it two steps before it reached him. It snatched him up and ran.

The Tath's arm around his chest squeezed the breath out of him, but Tren kicked and beat at its tough skin, half-blind with terror. It reached a tree and leapt ten paces up the trunk, sunk claws into the bark, and started to climb one-handed.

Tren struggled for breath to scream. The jolting violent motion of the climb knocked his head back against the creature's hard shoulder, and he clawed at its arm helplessly. Then he heard a vaguely familiar sound, like a giant bird flapping. Something black shot past them, and the Tath stopped, its claws grasping a branch, looking up.

Moon was perched on the trunk just above them, spines bristled, tail flicking. The ridges down his back had turned into black scaled wings, now partly extended.

The Tath growled defiance, and Moon dropped on its head.

Looking up into the Tath's face, Tren saw its expression turn from anger to horror as black-bronze claws clamped onto its skull, sinking into the skin of its forehead. Moon's spiny head whipped around, fangs sinking into the Tath's neck. His weight jerked it off the tree, it lost its grip on Tren, and they were all tumbling toward the ground.

Except Tren wasn't tumbling, something had him from behind, and he was gliding down. He saw the Tath hit the roots at the base of the tree, bounce and sprawl like a broken doll. A moment later Tren dropped into soft grass. He stumbled and sat down hard, dazed.

Lua fell to her knees beside him. "Are you all right?" she demanded breathlessly.

He stared at her, grabbed her arm. She didn't look hurt, just flushed and wide-eyed. He looked for Moon.

Moon was himself again, standing beside the dead Tath, nudging it with a bare foot. He looked just like he always had, still dressed in an oversized shirt and rope-belted pants. His hair was mussed and there was a spray of dark blood across his chest and shoulder. The Tath's blood.

Tren stuttered, found his voice, and managed, "What are you?"

Moon glanced at him, then dropped his gaze uneasily. "I don't know. My family-- I didn't lie about that. We were all like this. My mother never said where we came from." He nudged the Tath with his foot again. "I can't find any others like us."

Tren turned to Lua. She didn't look surprised. Scared, shaken, but not surprised. When she had given Moon her doll, he remembered, she had whispered, I won't tell. "You knew!"

She bit her lip, guilty. "I saw him in the trap. He changed, because he was afraid of what we'd do if we knew what he was. That's why he got so hurt."

He had thought they were his friends, and they had lied to him. Lua had been his friend first, and now she loved Moon better, enough to lie for him. Tren scrambled to his feet, furious. "I'll tell! I'll tell Kaleb, I'll tell everyone!"

"No, you can't!" Lua shook her head, appalled. "They won't understand! We were going to tell you, that's why we came here--"

Moon stared at him, stricken. "Don't."

Their reaction, the obvious accord between them, just made him angrier. "I will, you're from the forest, you're dangerous!" If he had had time to think he would have known he was being stupid, threatening this strange creature.

Except that Moon didn't look like a strange creature, he looked like the frightened hurt boy they had found in the trap. "I just want a place to live--"

Lua yelled, "You can't tell!"

Tren ran, pounding away down the path.

He didn't run home, he ran to one of the fruit gardens near the fringe, and hid in the damp tall grass near the rain cistern. Then he cried until his nose ran and his head ached and he couldn't cry anymore.

That was when he realized he wasn't really afraid of Moon. He was sitting alone near the fringe, the birds singing overhead, and he wasn't afraid Moon would come after him. He was afraid of the Tath, even though it was dead, and mad at Lua, mad at Moon for not telling him that he could fly, and angry at himself for crying. Kaleb's words came back to him: You're not afraid...because you know there's nothing to fear.

Moon had slept in their house for days and days, eaten meals with them, played with them. There were no stories where forest-monsters did things like that. They were like the Tath and Ghobin, killing everything for food. There were no stories about monsters who could make themselves look like ordinary people. And he saved you, Tren thought.

The image of the Tath's face filled his vision, and his skin burned like its hands were still on him. He leapt to his feet and ran toward home.


***


Lua was there, but it was evident from Ari's calm demeanor and the unconcern of the other children that she hadn't said anything about what had happened. She was hiding in her corner by the hearth, scratching on her slate, and didn't look at Tren when he came in. That suited Tren, who didn't want to look at anyone either, and he went back to the main sleeping room, rolled up in his blanket, and went to sleep.

He slept through the rest of the afternoon, waking only briefly when Ari came to feel his forehead, suspicious that he had taken sick. He woke for real at dusk, and stumbled out into the main room. Ari was carrying a pot in from the cistern, and the other children were gathering for supper. Guilty and self-conscious, Tren looked for Moon, expecting to see him with Lua in the corner.

Moon wasn't there.

Kaleb walked in from the stillroom, wiping his hands on a towel. He glanced around at them all, doing a quick head-count, and said, "Where's Moon?"

Lua looked up. Her eyes were red, but she wasn't crying. She said, "He's gone." That was when Tren saw she had her doll back. Tattered and dirty, it lay beside her on the hearth stone.

"Gone?" Kaleb glanced at her. "Gone where?"

"Gone away." Lua's voice was tight and sullen. "Down the Long Road."

Kaleb stared, and Ari stepped forward, frowning. "You mean, he's left the valley?"

Lua nodded.

Kaleb and Ari exchanged a look, their faces puzzled, distressed. Ari said, "Whyever for?"

Lua looked down, pressed her lips together, and wouldn't answer.

Kaleb and Ari couldn't leave it at that. Kaleb took a lamp and rousted the neighbors and went out to search the settlement. Tren knew Kaleb was hoping that Moon had gone off to hide and sulk, like the other children did occasionally.

Everyone went outside, watching the neighbors walk around with lamps, as Kaleb gathered a group to go and search the fringe. Tren found Lua sitting on the stone of the garden boundary, out of earshot of the others. He eased up beside her and whispered, "Why did he go?" He knew exactly why Moon had left, the knowledge ate at him like a...like a monster, but he was hoping against hope there had been another reason.

Lua turned to him and even in the dark he knew what her expression was like. Her voice was bitter. "You said you'd tell. If people find out what he is, they'll try to kill him. He said that's what always happened before, when people see him."

Tren slumped in misery. "I didn't mean it."

"You sounded like you did!" Lua slapped him with the doll, with a fury that suggested that she would rather be slapping him with a rock. "You were jealous."

Tren looked away. There was no point in denying it. But the jealousy had fled, leaving him cold, empty, and guilty.

"He was jealous of you." Tren stared at her, uncomprehending, and she said, "He told me. He didn't come to the midden to look for food, he came to watch us. He came here a month before we found him, and he stayed to watch us, from high in the trees where no one could see him. He was jealous of the way Kaleb talked to you, and showed you how to do things. He was jealous because he thought I was your little sister, like the one he used to have. He was watching us play in the midden and he was so jealous he didn't see the trap."

"I'm sorry," Tren said, miserably, inadequately. Lua shoved to her feet and ran away, pelting down the hill back toward the house.


***


They didn't find Moon, and Kaleb and Ari worried about him for months, hoping he would come back. Lua didn't speak to Tren for ten days, but when she did she admitted that Moon had said the Tath had probably tracked him to the settlement. That he had killed some of its pack a few valleys away, and it might have been waiting near the midden, having scented Moon's blood at the spot where the trap had been. That Moon had thought it was all his fault.

That didn't make Tren feel any better. But Lua also said, "He said he wanted to fly so much, but it was too dangerous to do it here, there were too many people who might see him. He said he couldn't live without flying, so he couldn't live here for long."

Tren hoped it was true, and not just Moon trying to make Lua feel better. Lua eventually forgave Tren, but he never forgot what had happened. And he never looked at the forest the same way again.


end



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© Martha Wells 2009




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