Flee to the center post. . . . You will find shelter there. . . . Flee. . . .
Hu-Hure clung to those soundless words as she ran on all fours, her mate at her heels. The trees ahead made vague silhouettes, obscured as though by a swirling winter fog. Yet no daytime fog ever grew so black, while instead of a gentle drizzle or sifting snow, this cloud bank carried with it a rainfall of ash, live embers, and burning twigs, all flung ahead of the blaze rampaging behind them.
Hinned had fallen quiet, or nearly so, tiny arms locked around Hu-Hure’s neck. She felt him trembling; if he whimpered, the sound vanished beneath the swelling roar of the hot, throat-searing wind. Hu-Hure glanced over her shoulder to make certain her mate, Herunn, still followed, for she could no longer hear even her own motions above the menace pursuing them. She glimpsed his anguished amber gaze and the form of Hoev clinging to his back.
Two parents . . . two cubs.
Hu-Hure turned her attention ahead again, dodging a small blaze spreading through some withered bracken. Despite the utter futility of the action, she flung back her head and cried out.
“Hovenn, Hovenn! Come to us!”
Searing air laden with ashes rushed down her throat; her anguished cry broke apart into a fit of coughing. They had searched too long, delayed too long. Now the fire blazed nearly at their heels.
They had lost their eldest son.
As if in answer to her desperation, that distant voice rang in Hu-Hure’s mind again. Flee to the center post and you will find shelter. Flee. . . .
Hu-Hure champed and spat onto the ground as she ran, feeling as though the reek of burning, of dying, blackened every part of her. That voice drew her forward, set hope like a cool spring welling up within. Mere spans remained of their desperate race, for she recognized the beaten path they pursued. Hoofprints marked it, to her right a mound of fresh droppings, speckled with crawling flies all witless of the oncoming fire.
“We’re almost there, Hinned,” she gasped to her cub. “Just hold on.”
His arms tightened; she felt him nod against her neck. Seconds later she saw shining beyond the trees. A different sort of mist: cold, pure, shimmering like a tapestry of light in a midwinter night sky. Hope blazed within her now. Hope of rescue . . .and hope for more than rescue.
Human mages could make such walls, true, but only the Defender of Life could cry out a warning in her own tongue heard leagues from the center post. Only the Defender . . .
Hu-Hure slowed as she reached the half-seen wall; she rose to her feet, recognizing the shapes of hyarmi on the other side. Hinned squeaked, whether for fear of falling or over what he saw, she did not know. Shushing him, she stretched out her hands to feel a delicious coldness. It parted under her fingertips. Cool air flooded toward her, air evoking the sweetness of sunlight on green leaves, droning bees, and fragrant blossoms.
“It’s open, Herunn!” With those words, she surged through the gap, heard Hoev’s happy shouting as the rest of her family followed.
The rest of her family save one.
Grief tightened in a band across Hu-Hure’s throat as she thrust ahead. All around spread verdant growth and the concerned gazes of dozens of hyarmi. Some held cubs, others stood beside carts containing an untidy heap of their possessions. She heard her name and Herunn’s on a few tongues; she could not bear to see the pity in their eyes, pity they should not feel. Not for her.
She had saved only herself, her mate, and her three-year-old cubs. As she shifted Hinned to cradle him in her arms, Hu-Hure caught the renewed stench of smoke and realized that her son’s brown coat had singed where falling embers struck it.
“There, there, little one,” she said, forcing words past her sorrow. “We’re safe now; the fire can’t hurt us here. The Defender will keep us safe.”
He nodded, golden eyes afraid and trusting at once. Hu-Hure caressed him, then turned toward her mate.
“Please take Hinned. I . . . I must find the Defender, Herunn. I-I must ask—”
“No, beloved.” Herunn shook his head, with a faint, strained smile. “We’ll seek him together.”
She swallowed, unable to manage words at first. “Thank you.”
He stood beside her, even now. He did not blame her, would not blame her. Hu-Hure swallowed again. Yet he could not stop her from blaming herself.
Herunn took the lead, wending his way between knots of hyarmi who each pointed in a different direction when he asked where the Defender could be found. Some were neighbors and recognized them, eyes widening at the sight of the shrunken family. Hu-Hure and Herunn quickened their pace, fleeing that unendurable question before it escaped their mouths.
They passed little clusters of cubs sitting wide-eyed and whispering frightening stories of fire to each other. Adult voices murmured all around as they trailed the reek of smoke and singed fur behind them. Whinnying rang out to the right; Hu-Hure spotted some ponies blindfolded against the swelling brightness in the west, then the leaping outlines of advancing flames.
Yet here, behind the shield wall, the land appeared peaceful. No wind roared, and no embers fell like deadly rain; birds even twittered somewhere, blissful and content. Hu-Hure shook her head, amazed. Not only birds found refuge, for she spotted little bands of roe deer and a few of the tall, regal red deer. Hares twitched their ears at the surrounding bustle; mere lengths away lay a fox, licking its forepaws. With every span, they passed more hyarmi. Surely hundreds had come for shelter. Some worked to set up simple camps, many spoke in anxious clusters, others roamed with flattened whiskers and intent eyes, searching for neighbors or friends.
How could they find their protector? Even if they called him, that would prove no quicker. They were by the center post, what more could they say?
“Where we going?”
She glanced down at Hinned and managed to give him a reassuring smile. “To find the Defender, dear one. So he . . . so he can help us.”
Assuming he was willing to try. Assuming it was not too late already.
They reached the trampled clearing around the center post. First she saw the dead tree trunk that formed the post itself, then noticed the thick message branch that bore an end the dull-red hue of dried blood, the symbol for catastrophe. Little use now, for all who saw it already knew their peril.
Hu-Hure spotted the Defender’s bright, golden head and vivid wings just as he turned away from the pair of silver-muzzled hyarmi he spoke with. The tall ava’s burning gaze fixed on them as they hurried toward him. He approached, as though drawn like some huge, brilliant moth to the shaking flame of their grief.
“Are your cubs well?” The chill light of his eerie eyes flickered between Hinned and Hoev, probing, assessing. Hinned squeaked, yet this time from delight rather than fear.
“Y-yes. I . . .I mean no.” Herunn shook his head. “I-I mean these cubs are, but. . .”
Hu-Hure felt the shame and grief within her tear apart into a blaze of agony fierce as the flames outside their sanctuary. Hands gentle, she set Hinned down beside his father. He hardly seemed to notice, his wide-eyed gaze fixed on the Defender.
Then, with a cry, she turned and flung herself to the ground at the Defender’s feet, clutching his knees. “It’s my fault! All my fault! I asked Hovenn if he had seen Dapple—our cat. And then he snuck off and went looking for her while we got the little ones ready. And—”
The Defender shifted away from her grasp. She opened her eyes as he knelt, gentle hands clasping her shoulders.
“We searched for him, we did! But we couldn’t find him and . . . and then the fire came too close.”
“Does he know my name?”
Hu-Hure shook her head, throat clenching in despair.
“H-he’s only eight years,” Herunn said.
“I am three,” Hoev declared. “Three! Three! Three!”
“Hush!” Herunn said.
Hu-Hure looked up to meet the Defender’s bright gaze.
“I will seek for him. You said his name is Hovenn?”
“Yes, Hovenn,” she whispered, afraid to embrace the hope that blazed anew within her.
“I will search for Hovenn.” He released her and rose to his feet. “Pray to the Creator that I find him quickly.”
“Mother! Father! Help me!”
Blind to his location and thoughtless of his course, Hovenn ran, aware of only his terror and the fire all around him. It brought an unending rain of burning twigs and branches, of flying embers; it made a hot, screaming wind that smothered his cries into choked gasping whenever those flaming brands struck his coat.
Hovenn dodged sideways as a burning aspen sank toward the ground, the sound of its fall lost beneath the crackle and roar of a million gnawing flames. A shrill cry burst out of him as pain lanced upward from one foot. He clawed at the fresh agony that overwhelmed the tightness in his chest, the throbbing of his head and racing heartbeat. Then he flung himself down, rolling as his parents had taught him.
The ground at his left dropped away and his roll became a tumble. He hurtled through a thin fringe of whippy alder saplings and rushes to splash into a shallow stream.
Hovenn cried out again, this time for joy. Never had he felt so glad to get wet, to wallow in the coolness until his singed mahogany fur became soaked to its roots. The tiny waves around him hissed like serpents, smothering the flames of the falling embers and branches that struck the ash-flecked water.
Dripping, Hovenn sat up. His delight faded as he took in his surroundings. The fire blazed all about him now, for the slender ribbon of water proved no barrier. Even as he stared, the alders he had rolled through dissolved into torches of cackling flames.
“Mother! Father! Where are you?” He could hardly hear his own voice over the blaze; he clutched his chest and coughed.
Shaking, feeling feverish and chilled at once, Hovenn rose to his feet. All streams ran to the Great River; his parents had taught him that. He would follow this one and he would never give up.
“Mother . . . Father . . . ” He moaned the words this time, but could not even hear them. He began to splash his way downstream, favoring his burned foot and dodging the larger branches that fell too close.
In his mind an answer rose, a voice clear and soundless. Hovenn! Can you hear me? Hovenn!
He stopped in his tracks, wondering. He had heard that voice earlier, telling everyone to seek the center post. Now it spoke to him. Who called him? The Creator? Or the Lord of all Forests? He gazed around, but he could see no giant stag, with or without antlers or wings.
He only saw fire.
Hovenn scampered forward, gasping against the heat of the flames and the thick wetness of the smoky air over the water. Perhaps he heard fever-voices, like little Hinned had once, before his parents brought him to a healer.
Hovenn! The voice rang in his mind once more. Please answer if you hear me. This is the Defender; I want to help you. Hovenn!
He stopped again, mouth dropping open. A burning twig glanced off his flank, but he did not even flinch. “Defender!” He squealed the word, as much in joy as in hope. The Defender of Life was searching for him. “I’m here! I’m here! Please help me!”
I hear you, Hovenn. If you can, stay where you are and call your name.
“I’m in the stream!” Hovenn shouted, then doubled up over a fit of coughing. He straightened, eyes watering, and cried out again, though it felt so strange to call himself. “Hovenn! Hovenn! I’m here!”
Well done, Hovenn! I’m coming. . . .
Hovenn laughed. “Hovenn! Hovenn!” He spun around in the stream, splashing in the shallow water, flinging up spray. “Hovenn!” Soon he would see the Defender! “Hovenn!” Soon he would be safe! “Hovenn!” And he could talk to him and ask questions. . . .
Hovenn whirled again, giggling. The fire raged so loudly all around, so hot and fierce and bright, while his joy so consumed him that he had no warning.
Something slammed into him from behind, flinging him forward, crushing him against the streambed. It forced his face underwater; his back blazed with hot agony. Hovenn thrashed, screaming out a trail of bubbles, desperate. He twisted, then clawed at the burning tree that pinned him.
Long seconds later, as Hovenn choked on the liquid flooding down his throat, the weight lifted away from him, spun aside. A grip like iron seized him and jerked him out of the stream; hands pressed on his chest and he spewed water all over the arms of his rescuer.
Whimpering, he looked up to see the human-like face, golden hair, and blazing, ice-pale gaze of the Defender of Life. He went limp in the ava’s arms, shaking with exhaustion and pain. The Defender’s grip shifted. All the hurt faded away from Hovenn’s back, his burned foot, his chest, his head. He coughed, leaving flecks of ash and blood on the Defender’s silver-grey clothing, yet he felt no pain at all.
“Hold tight, Hovenn.” The Defender turned him about so that Hovenn could wrap his dripping arms around his neck.
He ran. Hovenn twisted his head to watch as the Defender pursued the course of the stream. He ran two-legged like a human, bounding effortlessly as a deer. No flying embers smote them; fire-wreathed branches glanced aside a length away. Burning trees lay fallen across their path, but the Defender sprang over them in leaps that made Hovenn squeeze his eyes shut for their unbearable height.
He would never fall, not in the Defender’s grasp. But he could not convince his stomach of that fact.
Low trees the Defender could leap over; higher trunks held aloft by burning neighbors he ducked beneath. Then the stream turned and narrowed, the Defender slowed, and Hovenn saw that the willows ahead on both sides burned. That blaze set the water glistening like liquid fire, a choked tangle of flaming branches woven over its steaming surface in a barrier too thick to pass, too high to leap.
The Defender did not speak, just wheeled and retraced his steps, now moving at a walk, before he turned aside and approached an alder growing half a length from the stream bank, singed but incredibly still green. There he stopped and set Hovenn down at the tree’s foot.
“We’ll stay here until the fire has passed.”
Hovenn watched as the Defender stretched out on the grass-tussocks nearby, long wings folded close. Those moss-green, evening-sky-blue, and bellflower-violet feathers appeared far more vivid and delightful than the simple depictions in the scrolls he had often pored over.
He swallowed. Those scrolls of beloved stories had all burned up, like that day his wooden pony toy fell into the hearth fire. His home had burned up, he had not found Dapple, and he did not even know if his family had escaped. He hunched down, shivering, throat closing on his grief.
The Defender looked over at him with an expression that seemed a faint grimace. “I’m sorry, Hovenn. I know you’ve lost a great deal, but your family is safe. Your parents told me your name and asked me to search for you.”
“Safe? All of them? Mother and Father and Hoev and Hinned?”
“Yes, if Hoev and Hinned are your younger brothers. They’re at the center post, with many other hyarmi from this district.”
Hovenn heard his mother’s voice in his mind and obeyed it. “Thank you, Defender, for saving me. But . . . how did you know what I was thinking?”
“You’re welcome, Hovenn. I guessed. I could feel your sorrow.”
The Defender closed his eyes; his fingers clutched the grass for a moment before he looked at Hovenn again. “I want to tell your parents that I’ve found you and you’re safe, but I forgot to ask their names. Would you tell me?”
Hovenn nodded, happy to help. “Mother and Father.”
The Defender’s mouth curved a little, but he did not show his teeth. Hovenn guessed that meant he smiled like a human instead of frowning like a hyarmi. “They’re not my mother and father. What do friends or neighbors call them when they visit?”
“Oh . . . sorry. They call them Hu-Hure and Herunn.”
“Thank you.” The Defender’s gaze went distant.
Another shiver coursed through Hovenn. He tried to wring some of the water from his sodden fur. He found it amazing that he felt cold, when all around them flames danced across the treetops. He lifted his head and stared, unable to see far because of the fire and smoke. He could feel no wind, no smoke curled around them, and no embers fell like glowing rain. Even the roar of the fire seemed muted. Aside from the reek made by his own singed coat, the air smelled sweet.
“What are you doing?”
The Defender’s bright, silver gaze turned toward him. “I’ve told your parents that I found you. They’re delighted.”
Hovenn smiled, then shook his head. “I mean here. There’s no fire here, and I actually feel cold.”
“I have shields around this place, to keep the fire and the fumes from killing us and to keep it from getting too hot.”
“Oh.” Hovenn frowned. “But why are we staying here? Why not join everybody else?”
“It’s much safer to make a stand on unburned ground than to try to fight through a burning forest. You don’t realize how hot that fire is or how quickly it could kill us. It’s constantly searing away my shields.” The Defender paused. “But don’t be afraid. I won’t let it hurt you anymore.”
“I’m not afraid,” Hovenn said. “I’m with you. But . . . but can’t you just get there without running? Like . . .” he waved a hand, “like with power or something? Traveling . . . er, a special sort of Traveling?”
“I’m afraid I can’t. I can feel which way the center post is, but I don’t know the exact distance. I lost my bearings in the fire. I won’t risk Traveling and accidentally killing somebody.”
Hovenn heard his mother’s voice, nagging him in his memory. “Thank you for answering my questions. Am I being a nuisance?”
The Defender’s mouth curved again. “You’re not trying nearly hard enough.”
Hovenn beamed. “Good!” He jiggled a little, delighted. The Defender was answering his questions and not running out of patience either. “If the fire’s eating your shields, why can’t I see it or hear it happening?”
“You can hear it, if you’d like.” The Defender gestured at the hazy boundary between green and charred vegetation only half a length from them. “Go ahead. Get closer and listen.”
Hovenn scooted over, slowing as he approached. He stretched out his hand, hesitant at first, until he felt resilient coolness under his fingertips. Curious, he leaned closer. Then he heard it, nearly lost beneath the noise of the surrounding fire, a steady, quiet hissing.
He giggled, delighted by the sound. He pressed on the shield a little, but then his mirth faded. “Does it hurt when it eats your shields?”
“It’s not exactly pleasant.”
Hovenn tilted his head. That sounded like one of his father’s nonanswers. “But does it hurt?”
The Defender closed his eyes. Once again, he wound his long fingers in the grass, clutching, crushing. “It does now. The fire has reached the center post.”
Hovenn swallowed. He scooted away from the shield wall, not wanting to listen anymore. “Would . . . would it help if you make the wall smaller? You can make it smaller if you want. I don’t need that much space. I can stay still.”
The Defender’s eyes opened for a moment. “You’re kind, Hovenn. But no . . . I need it big enough so that we don’t run out of air.”
Perplexed, Hovenn glanced up, then gazed about. How could one run out of air unless under the water? He could make out the vague expanse of the space inside the shields by looking for where he saw no smoke, but he found it hard to tell how high it extended. Higher than the alder he sat beneath, but the tree was far from large. It made no sense to him, but since the Defender knew everything, he had to be right.
Hovenn remained silent, rocking from side to side on his haunches, pondering. He felt weak and even sleepy. Though he wanted to ask more questions, he found it hard to focus. Water still dripped from his matted fur; as the minutes slipped away he began to shiver again. The Defender did not move, yet his body looked far too taut for him to have fallen asleep.
“I’m thirsty,” Hovenn said after a while, once he had wearied of his trembling and watching the flames dance all around them.
The Defender opened his eyes. He untangled one hand from its grip and stretched it out toward Hovenn. “I can help with that.”
A stone bowl appeared on the Defender’s palm. As Hovenn watched, it filled with water welling up in its center. “Please, drink.”
He took it and drank. The bracingly cold water tasted pure and sweet. It soothed his thirst, but it also set him shivering uncontrollably. He put the bowl down when he had only drunk half.
“D-do you w-want some?”
The Defender nodded and took the bowl. He turned so that he reclined on one side, shifting his wings to lie half folded behind him. He drained the remaining water; the bowl vanished. Then his gaze fixed on Hovenn, whose teeth had begun to chatter as he watched.
Hovenn ducked his head. “I-I’m sorry. It was g-good water. I-I don’t k-know why I’m s-so cold.”
“You’re soaking wet and you’re injured,” the Defender said, “and I can’t risk changing shape to Heal you now. I’m sorry.”
“N-nothing to be s-sorry for.”
The Defender beckoned. “Come here and let me try to help you. Lie down beside me.”
Hovenn obeyed without hesitation. He turned his back to the Defender and shut his eyes, fighting to stifle his shaking. The Defender’s arm closed about him and pulled him against his chest. A faint whispering reached Hovenn’s ears; he opened his eyes to find that the Defender had arched one wing over him. He could hardly see the flames now, sheltered under a green and blue canopy of feathers whose faint scent reminded him of a pine forest beneath a rising summer sun.
It did not take long for gentle warmth to start working through his wet fur, to soothe his shuddering. Hovenn closed his eyes, smiling. His back felt warm already. He could feel the Defender’s steady heartbeat, so much slower than his parents’, but still lulling and comforting.
In a matter of minutes his shivering eased. For a time he lay at peace, nearly dozing. Then a change jerked him from his contentment. Hovenn opened his eyes to see that the lurid light visible past the Defender’s feathers had begun to fade. More than that, the Defender himself had started trembling.
“Am I making you cold?” Hovenn asked.
He felt the Defender shift a little. “No, young one.” His reply sounded strained. “I don’t get cold easily.”
“Then why are you shaking?”
“Because the fire is all around the center post. It’s taking all my strength to hold my shields.”
Hovenn closed his eyes. For the first time since the Defender had rescued him, he felt a tremor of fear. He found that he could not keep it in.
“What if . . . what if you’re not strong enough?”
The Defender’s arm tightened around him; Hovenn heard him draw in a ragged breath. “Then they will die . . . all of them. They will die . . . and we will live.”
Hovenn’s heartbeat thudded in his ears. He thought of his family . . . all the families. Surrounded by the raging fire. And the Defender was with him, instead of them.
“Pray that I am strong enough, young one,” the Defender murmured. “Strong enough to save them and bring you to your family.”
A whimper escaped Hovenn, yet it did not rise from fear. Though he clamped his hands against his mouth, he could not stop another from emerging. Torn by his shame, he started shaking again.
“What troubles you?”
“I-I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t have run away. I got so scared for Dapple. So I ignored them when I heard them calling. I’m sorry!”
He felt the Defender shift again, felt trembling fingers caress his shoulder.
“Give your apology to your parents . . . for you have made no offense against me.”
Hovenn whimpered again, miserable. “If I hadn’t run off, you wouldn’t be here. You would be at the center post, with everybody else.”
“Maybe I would . . . and maybe not.” The Defender’s voice, though strained and weary, held amusement. “Perhaps we both deserve a scolding. You for caring so much for your cat, and me for caring so much for a lost cub.” Again a gentle caress. “What would you feel if you stayed safe, but did not even look for her? I know what I would feel if I had not even sought you.”
The Defender drew a long breath and his shaking diminished somewhat. “I will not regret what I have chosen. And I will see this through, no matter what it costs me.”
Hovenn nodded and closed his eyes. He found that his shame had eased a little. “She’s still d-dead, even though I looked for her.”
“I fear you’re right. I’m sorry, young one.”
Hovenn reached out and clutched the Defender’s hand; the flesh felt strangely cool beneath his fingers. He could not bring himself to ponder it, but only mourned, quiet and trembling, for the friend he had lost.
Time passed. Hovenn lay spent, caught somewhere between dozing and sleeping, and only vaguely aware of the light dimming and growing ruddier. The Defender roused him by shifting and pulling away from his slack grip. Hovenn opened his eyes, then yawned.
“It’s time, young one. I must rest, but I will bring you back to your family first.”
Excitement burned the last traces of lethargy from Hovenn’s mind. He drew in a breath, then realized he could feel air stirring his half-dried fur, air thick, warm, and chalky with the scent of smoke. He pushed himself up to crouch on his haunches.
“You were strong enough!” With those words, Hovenn turned toward the Defender, only to gasp.
His wings looked dark under the radiance of surrounding low-burning fires that lit the starless sky. Those feathers seemed dulled and lusterless in that diffuse crimson light, but they had not darkened as much as his gaze. His once-bright eyes now appeared inky pools of shadow against his pallid face, and they bore little more than a faint, shimmering gleam.
“Are you well?”
“No, but don’t trouble yourself. As you said, I was strong enough; that’s what matters. Now come. The ground is too dangerous for you to walk on, and besides that, your back is injured. Please let me carry you.”
Hovenn could not answer at first. He wanted to argue. More than that, he wanted to apologize again. Most of all, he wanted to help. But he could not.
He bowed his head, then nodded.
Seconds later, the Defender lifted him from the ground, and he wrapped his arms around the ava’s neck once more. This time no training or nagging prompted his words.
“Thank you, Defender.”
The alder tree seemed to rustle a grateful farewell as they set out. The Defender did not run, and his course proved far from straight as they passed over the scorched ground on a night unlike any Hovenn had ever witnessed. The eastern horizon they moved toward glowed a lurid orange, yet not with the coming of dawn. No stars glimmered above; smoke blotted out the heavens. Instead, a firmament spread below, black and speckled with dying embers of amber and crimson in a twisted parody of a midnight sky. Many of the trees had fallen; they wound their way through a wasteland of strewn trunks, some still burning along their length.
As his eyes adjusted to the strange light, Hovenn saw more than burned trees and the charred remains of bushes and meadows. Here and there he spotted the bodies of dead animals. Some looked burned and unrecognizable, while others lay as though sleeping, even more dreadful for their perfection. He could not smother the moan that escaped as his gaze fell on a forest cat, a dead kitten clenched in her lifeless jaws.
“I wish I could have saved them all, young one,” the Defender murmured. “But even if I had the strength . . . many might have survived the fire, only to starve.”
Hovenn shuddered. He looked over the Defender’s shoulder and folded wings, gazing toward the cats until they passed from sight.
Then he realized that flecks of blood marked the ground where the Defender’s feet had passed.
Hu-Hure waited beside the shield wall, resting on her side, attention fixed on the west. Her mate watched over their sleeping cubs at a simple camp a few lengths away. Neither she nor Herunn could sleep, only wait with fear and longing for the return of their eldest son.
Around her shoulders hung verdant leaves, trembling at times from her movement. Before her stretched a ruined wasteland, once-green forest wholly devastated by the power of the fire. She had watched the inferno approach, then retreated as the barrier fell back a few lengths at the peak of its fury, yielding precious ground to its insatiable hunger. Yet the shimmering, hissing walls had held, and in time, the flames died away into the east.
Now she watched small fires wane and embers fade, while smoke continued to rise in places like clouds billowing out of the earth. Hu-Hure pondered how long it would take before they could safely traverse the smoldering ground. She could only wonder if any of their possessions had survived; plainly they could no longer live where her cubs had been born.
Herunn was a beekeeper, but the fire had undoubtedly destroyed his hives, the source of sweet honey and candle wax. She herself worked as a potter, and she feared to ponder what the heat and ashes had done to her favorite places to quarry clay. They could not dwell there anymore. Though Herunn had told her that he believed his cousins living on the tundra would lend them the use of their winter home, they still had to get there. With no food, potentially no possessions, and young cubs to care for.
A glimpse of distant motion on the burned land caught Hu-Hure’s eye, wrenching her from her troubled musing. At first, she took it for a deer, gingerly picking its way across the ruin of its home. As the shape approached, she jerked straight, excitement coursing through her.
“He’s coming, Herunn!” She kept her voice low, to avoid waking the other families slumbering nearby. As she stood, she heard motion from behind.
Hu-Hure could discern them clearly now: the tall ava carrying her son in his arms over the ember-strewn ground, Hovenn craning to watch ahead. The Defender’s course shifted a little, and she guessed that he had seen her. She noticed in dismay that more than the night dimmed his eyes, but she did not ponder it, thoughts too wrapped about her son. He looked singed, and one of his feet bore burns, but he lived.
Hovenn gazed around as they approached the trees, an expression on his face Hu-Hure had never seen before, a sort of sorrowful resolve. Then he spotted her and grinned. She smiled back, trembling with joy, yet beneath that overwhelming delight wove a thread of loss. Her eldest son was growing up.
Moments later, the wall parted and Hovenn rushed into her arms. He reeked of smoke; his damp fur had badly singed in places. And then her clutching fingers slipped across bare, oozing patches of burned flesh. Hu-Hure drew away, alarmed, yet Hovenn showed no signs of pain as his father hugged him in turn.
Afterward, Hovenn stepped back and regarded each of them. “I-I’m sorry I ignored your calling. I was so scared for Dapple, but . . .” He looked down. “I should have listened to you.”
Herunn embraced Hovenn again and murmured comforting words, but Hu-Hure turned to find that the Defender had already left them, moving slowly through the trees. She followed, reckless from worry.
“Why won’t you Heal my son?” she asked when he glanced back at her.
“I will Heal him. I swear it,” the Defender replied in a strained whisper. “But I do not have the strength to do it now.”
He shuffled forward again, moving as though his feet pained him. Hu-Hure brought a hand to her mouth as she realized they were burned along the front of his soles, burned and bleeding. Before she could speak, the Defender dropped to his knees in a tiny clearing between some young firs. He did not look at her, only stretched out on the ground and closed his darkened eyes.
Hu-Hure swallowed her shame and returned to her family. The guilt she felt increased as she listened to her son describe his rescue and his hours with the Defender.
“And he hurt his feet, carrying me back,” Hovenn said at the end of it. “We saw dead animals and . . . and dead cats, too, and he felt sad he could not save them.”
“He saved some,” Herunn said to console him. “Perhaps you’ll see them in the morning. But you’ll see far more hyarmi than animals. There’s a lore-gatherer around, and he told us there are six hundred and forty-eight hyarmi here.”
Hu-Hure forced a smile. “Six hundred and forty-nine, now.” She realized a moment later that she had risen to her feet.
“Where are you going?” her mate asked, a hint of worry in his gaze.
“The Defender . . .”
Hovenn looked up at her, whiskers pricked. “Where is he? Do you know?”
She nodded. “He’s resting, not far from here. I . . . we’re almost out of water already, but . . . I want to help him.”
“I do too.”
Hu-Hure frowned at her son. “You’re inj—”
“Please, mother.” That sorrow and inflexible resolve tightened his face again. “Let me come with you. Please.”
They went together, mother and cub, from one sleeping family to the next. Everyone they woke proved eager to give: water for washing, rags for bandaging, and someone even had salve. The surrounding portions of the camp stirred as Hu-Hure led her son to where she had last seen the Defender. A quiet sigh escaped as she found him there still.
He did not react as she murmured her desire aloud, then settled down beside him and set to work. The ava lay as though lifeless while she and Hovenn washed the ash, soot, and dried blood from his feet. Perhaps he had blocked the pain, or perhaps he was too exhausted to feel anything. Hu-Hure did not know which, simply grateful that their ministrations did not hurt him as they smeared precious salve across the abraded, swollen flesh of his taloned toes, then wrapped his feet with bandages.
Their work complete, Hu-Hure and Hovenn left. Hu-Hure noticed that a few older hyarmi had set up a watch over the Defender, to keep curious cubs away as the news of his return spread through the camp.
Hu-Hure lay down with her family and tried to sleep, and for a few hours she found success. Hovenn woke her, moaning and rigid with pain from his burned foot. She could only watch in anguish as his pain spread and increased, because holding him just made it worse. The Defender’s protection had failed; as she saw Hovenn shudder and cough, whimpering, she began to understand the extent of his injuries.
Dawn came and Hu-Hure could bear it no longer. She would not wake the Defender, but neither would she give him any chance to forget her son. She and Herunn supported Hovenn, half carrying him to near where the Defender slept. Hoev and Hinned followed, wide-eyed and fretful. They were hungry, but she had nothing to feed them.
The half-dozen snowy-muzzled hyarmi stood speaking in low tones, a sort of informal guard. She could not see the Defender, because someone had hung cloth between the trees to give him privacy. Bowls lay below, gifts of food and precious water. Merely looking proved enough to set her stomach rumbling, while Herunn had to snatch Hoev before he scampered over to claim a meal that did not belong to them.
To Hu-Hure’s relief, their wait proved short. The east flamed bright with the dawn, the sky a featureless blaze of color and the sun itself obscured by the smoke rising from the fire that had passed them. As she watched, the cloth stirred, and the Defender stepped around it.
Hu-Hure heard the scampering of many feet and knew the news would spread within minutes and a crowd would gather. Hinned squeaked, then began bouncing with excitement, hungry complaints forgotten. The Defender’s gaze turned to the gifts that lay at his bandaged feet, and to Hu-Hure’s relief, his eyes bore light again, though not enough to rival their blaze when she had first met him and begged for her son’s rescue.
Gratitude and shame warred within her as she stepped forward, one arm supporting Hovenn. The Defender’s eyes lifted, the dismay that crossed his face unmistakable as he saw the pain-wracked cub.
He approached, a few quick, fluid strides, to grip Hovenn’s shoulders. Hu-Hure moved back as her son’s body relaxed and the pain faded from his expression. He smiled up at the Defender, eyes trusting.
“I’m sorry, Hovenn. I didn’t intend this.”
Hovenn shook his head. “Nothing to be sorry for.”
The Defender looked down, then became a grey-eyed, golden hyarmi. Hinned squeaked again; Hu-Hure grabbed him before he could charge ahead. She frowned as she realized that the bandaging had fallen away from the Defender’s changed, shrunken feet. With an effort, she held her tongue and watched him Heal her son.
Hovenn’s mahogany coat remained singed, but the burned, bare flesh went pale and smooth. His breaths grew deeper, easier; his back straightened. Hu-Hure did not know when the Healing ended, but her son appeared to recognize it, for he surged forward without warning and flung his arms around the Defender.
“Thank you, Defender. Thank you!”
Smiling, the shapechanger returned Hovenn’s embrace. “You’re welcome, Hovenn. And don’t worry, your fur will grow in again. It will just feel drafty in back for awhile.”
Hovenn giggled. “It’s good it’s summer!”
The two separated. The Defender knelt and gathered up the fallen rags that had bound his feet. He returned to his own form, and then his piercing gaze lifted and settled on Hu-Hure.
“Did you do this, Hu-Hure?”
She swallowed and nodded, all too aware of how many hyarmi could hear her words. “My son and I did, since . . . since it’s on account of us that you got injured.”
The Defender shook his head. “I chose to take that risk, but I thank you both.”
Then he stood and looked out across the gathering crowd. “I thank you for your gifts, but I will not accept them, for you have the greater need. Let any who are willing come to the center post. I have tidings and more to share with you.”
The Defender turned and began walking in the direction of the post. The crowd followed in a surge, save for some cubs and young hyarmi who bounded off to spread the news through the rest of the encampment. Hu-Hure bent and scooped Hinned into her arms, afraid he might get separated or stepped on in the throng. She glanced over to see that her mate had the bolder Hoev already perched on his shoulders.
“How do you feel?” Herunn asked his eldest son.
Hovenn beamed. “Wonderful, Father. Well . . . almost wonderful. I feel hungry too.”
“Hungry! Me hungry!” Hinned tugged on Hu-Hure’s fur.
“I’m sorry,” Hu-Hure said, worry churning anew in her mind. “But I don’t have anything to give you . . . either of you.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Hovenn sounded assured. “The Defender knows we need food.”
Hu-Hure did not answer, only exchanged an anxious glance with her mate over Hovenn’s head. Feeding one family made a small task . . . six hundred and forty-nine hyarmi a far greater challenge.
It took minutes for the crowd to assemble by the center post, while the rest of the camp gathered around the first comers who had witnessed Hovenn’s Healing. The large clearing surrounding the dead trunk of the post grew packed, with the latest arrivals forced to stand in the forest, or shove themselves between the drooping boughs of the firs.
At length, the shuffling slowed, and a semblance of a hush descended. True silence could never rest across so large a throng or one that contained so many hungry, fretting cubs.
Hu-Hure, seated two lengths from the front, looked over her shoulder to see that many behind had settled on the ground like herself, which meant that the Defender could be easily seen by most. Amazingly, open space remained on both sides of the ava, perhaps blocked by his shields.
“First, let me thank you for your patience and your trust,” the Defender said. To Hu-Hure, those words seemed to ring in both her ears and her mind, ensuring that all assembled heard his voice.
“I know you have lost your homes, many of you your possessions as well. I know you are afraid for the future. What I ask of you may be hard to accept.
“I ask that you remain here.”
Murmuring passed through the gathered hyarmi at those words.
“Remain here and wait. The land is not safe for you to walk on because of fire still burning in the ground. The streams are polluted by ash, so they are not safe for you to drink.
“I will give you water that should last you for a few days.”
Hu-Hure saw Hovenn smile at those words.
“If it proves too little, you have but to call me, and I will give you more.”
“What about food?” somebody cried out. Hu-Hure’s stomach rumbled an agreement, echoed by Hinned’s plaintive voice.
“A caravan is coming from the Table of the Elders, bearing food. I expect it should arrive within two days.”
Hu-Hure swallowed, but a wave of relief coursed through many of the listeners. Two days made a very long time for a tiny cub.
“Heruvael will come as well,” the Defender said. “He will tend to any burns or other injuries, and he will extinguish the fire that remains and cool the land so you can safely return to your homes.” He paused. “The Council mages are gathered at the Great River. I will join them there and help them destroy this fire. But before I leave, I will give you what I may.”
With those words, he turned to the empty ground at his left. Hu-Hure saw a round enclosure appear, wrought of shields that looked thicker at the bottom than the top. As she watched, a foaming cascade of water poured from midair and began to gather within the large, translucent container.
Hovenn grinned, nearly wriggling with excitement. “It’s good water, Mother and Father, I’ve already had some. You should taste it!”
It took mere minutes for the container to fill. Then the Defender turned to the open area at his right. This time, two smaller structures appeared, looking much flimsier than the first. Hu-Hure saw no cascade as with the water, merely a puff and a rush of movement. An instant later the two urns each held a mound of grain, one of oats and one of rye.
The Defender bore a faint frown as he regarded them, perhaps calculating their dispersal across six hundred hungry mouths. “I wish I had more to give you. Please, let those who lost everything come and take first.”
Some of the older hyarmi nodded. “Let it be according to the Law,” they muttered.
A brief hush ensued, and then someone, somewhere, started applauding. It took mere seconds for it to spread across the entire throng. The assembled hyarmi did not howl, perhaps many throats had grown too parched, but Hu-Hure heard some crying out words of fervent gratitude.
The Defender lowered his head. He smiled but did not try to speak. Then he turned and worked his way through the crowd, which clutched at his hands as he passed, small cubs hugging his legs like fuzzy caterpillars on a flower stem.
Hovenn sprang to his feet and hurried after him; Hu-Hure gave a wriggling Hinned to her mate and headed off in pursuit. She should not fear, but she had no intention of letting her eldest son out of her sight or Herunn’s for a long time.
The applause dwindled as the Defender walked into the forest. Hu-Hure glanced back to see hyarmi with empty bowls queuing up beside the containers of water and grain, while others scampered off in search of vessels of their own.
She followed her son through the trees as he followed the Defender, skirting abandoned camps and rumpled bedrolls. The ava slowed at the eastern edge of the preserved land. His shield wall was gone, but the vivid perimeter of green ground gave adamant witness to where it had stood.
Quiet rustling rose all around Hu-Hure; she looked about and realized that the animals had come. Roe deer and red deer approached the Defender. He laid his hands on their fearless heads, and then the beasts slipped away. Hares clambered onto his feet, which Hu-Hure saw were Healed of their burns. They nuzzled him, then hopped off into the underbrush. Others came as well: forest cats, foxes, stoats, an ambling badger, a solitary bear.
“What are you doing?” Hovenn asked, as unafraid as the animals.
“I’m telling them where they can find food and safety . . . telling the small ones to stay here.”
A few heartbeats later, her son spoke again, sounding plaintive. “Will I ever see you again?”
The Defender looked up from the incongruous assortment of dormice and weasels at his feet. He smiled. “If you wish it, Hovenn. Come to a Council meeting and search for me, then I will find you.”
Hovenn beamed. “Thank you!”
“Thank you,” Hu-Hure said, amazed that her son had reminded her of her own manners. “For rescuing my son and Healing him. For saving us all. For the food and water . . . for everything.”
The Defender nodded, standing as the animals dispersed. “You’re welcome, both of you. Believe me, it was my joy.”
Then he turned and opened his wings. He sprang into the air, followed by a swarm of small birds that wheeled and flew southward. Powerful wingbeats bore the Defender aloft, carrying him eastward toward the smoke-stained horizon where the fire still burned, where the lives of plants, animals, and hyarmi were still menaced. His form shrank away into the distance, blurred and then lost within the haze of smoke.
The hush left by his departure proved brief.
“Please, Mother, can we go to the Autumn Council meeting? Please?”
She sighed and looked down at those hopeful, orange eyes. “I’m sorry, but no. We have to find a new home before winter.”
Hovenn’s shoulders slumped; his whiskers drooped.
“How about next spring?” Hu-Hure said, hoping she would not regret it. “Would that do for you?”
Her son’s expression brightened, and he spun around, grinning. “Oh, yes! Thank you, thank you!”
Tidbit: Hovenn is the great-grandfather of Hu-Hovingen / Warder Hu-Hov