They did not go far that evening before they set camp on the edge of the plateau itself. The mountains around were alpine in flavor, filled with coniferous pine and spruce, but the plateau, surrounded by mountains on three sides, got made up of very wide hills and valleys and filled with deciduous trees, birch, oak and elm. The snow did not seem so evident, but it did pile up in drifts here and there, especially in the higher places.
Morning came before Wlkn asked the inevitable question. “So, what are the Were?”
“Shape shifters.” Boritz gave the short answer. He kept looking all around, alert and concerned. He felt it only a matter of time before they got spotted. He argued vigorously for the rough mountain path that went miles out of the way but skirted the plateau itself.
“They live mostly in human form, but they take the shape and characteristics of animals, especially for the hunt,” Badl said. “The most common forms are the eagle, the bear and the wolf, and they generally stick with the hunter animals, but of course they might appear as any animal, at any time.”
“Like that hawk?” Moriah asked, and pointed up into the dim light of the early morning sky.
Badl nodded. “They have probably already seen us.”
Laurel spoke out of her own experience. “I have come this way three times before, but always as a spirit of the earth, and the Were mostly respect the earth. I have never come with solid, flesh and blood people whom they consider intruders in their territory.”
“One thing you must remember,” Badl continued. “Some say when they take the animal shape, they actually become the animal, but they never stop being smart, so they are more than just the animal, and the Were are very smart.” By then, Wlkn, Elleya and Andrea had joined Boritz in looking around in every direction and wondered how long it might be before they had to defend themselves. Elleya let out her stress, verbally, and that prompted Flern to ride out ahead. Laurel followed.
“I need some time alone,” Flern protested.
“I know the way,” Laurel responded softly. “There are turns.” She said no more for a while, but when she saw the small tears in Flern’s eyes, she had to speak. “My Lady is thinking of her family?”
Flern nodded slowly. “And my friends,” she said softly. Human ears might not have heard the words over the sounds of the morning forest and the tromping of the horses across the meadow, but Laurel’s elf ears were not human ears.
“My Lord Wlvn will care for them,” she assured Flern.
“I know,” Flern said. “Even if I cannot get in touch with him just now—since we double traded—I know he will care for them as much as I care for this crew of misfits, and you, young as you are.” Flern gave Laurel a wry smile, but Laurel did not know how to take that, exactly. Flern went on, though she lowered her eyes and her voice as she spoke. “It’s just that I thought I might be falling in love, and maybe he was ready to love me, too. Wlvn can’t do anything about that, and…” She paused to wipe her eyes. “Now I may never know for sure.”
Laurel rode quietly for a long time before she spoke again. “I was thinking about falling in love, myself,” she said in her own soft voice, so Flern had to strain a little to hear. “It seems strange to me, an odd thing to be made, but wonderful in a way, I suppose. I never thought much about it before.” Flern looked up. Laurel was over fifty years old, but she never thought much about love? Then again, she did look to be closer to twelve or thirteen. Flern knew that for all of the wisdom these earth spirits gleaned over the centuries that they lived; they were nevertheless very slow on certain aspects of life—all that was not native to their work in the world. The gods, she knew, were even slower about some things, and Flern thought that there might be a law there, like maybe she could call it the law of compression. When fifty or sixty years was all you got, a lot of living had to be compressed into that short time. Humans did not have the luxury of time to waste, but then that thought just made her cry again. She kept thinking about Kined and kept missing him terribly, and she felt like she was losing her time. Kined was always such a good friend, so kind and wise, even when he chased after Elluin. He felt like a security blanket for her soul, and she needed him, especially in this harsh and primitive winter world into which she had fallen.
All that morning, no one saw anything for sure because the Were were indistinguishable from the animals they imitated. When lunch came, they found a nice, sheltered hollow where they dismounted, hobbled the horses, started a small fire, and all without saying a word until Boritz could no longer control his tongue.
“This is madness.” He barely breathed the words, even as an old hawk came swooping in, to light on a branch well out of reach. They all watched the hawk for a minute, but it did not appear to be going away. It looked content to preen its feathers and watch them from the safety of its perch. After a while, they all tried to ignore it.
“Should we hunt?” Moriah asked, having spotted some deer on a nearby hill, and at least one rabbit hole near the hollow.
“Dare not,” Badl said. “We might accidentally harm a Were and then that would be it for us.”
“I am no stranger to hunger, if it keeps us safe,” Wlkn said. He still looked at the hawk that looked at him.
Boritz took a stick and stirred the fire while Andrea sat quietly beside him. Elleya stayed unnaturally quiet beside Wlkn, and Badl just looked hungry sitting beside Moriah. Laurel spoke softly to Flern. “Any luck yet?” Flern shook her head, but in the gloom of that moment, everyone heard and so Flern had to explain.
“I am trying to get in touch with Faya, but so far I haven’t had any luck.”
“Who is Faya?” Andrea asked.
“Me,” Flern said, though it did not answer the question. “Faya was queen among the Were two lifetimes ago, I think. She seems to be the Nameless God’s reflection the way I am Wlvn’s reflection.”
“A half-goddess, I think, though I am not sure about her parentage. I am pretty sure, though, that she reflects the Nameless God in a lesser degree in the same way I reflect in lesser ways the gifts that have been given to Wlvn.”
“She might help?” Wlkn sounded ready to grasp at anything.
Flern nodded. “I think she might get us safe passage through the Were lands even if she lived a hundred years ago or so.” She looked at Laurel.
“Before I was born,” Laurel confirmed, and that meant at the very least sixty years ago.
“Anyway, I have not been able to touch her life, and Nameless is being stubborn. He won’t open a door for me. He says I have to reach her myself, or not as the case may be.” Flern scooted closer to the fire, leaned over to put her chin in her hand, and stared into the fire for a bit.
“Well, I could use something to eat,” Boritz said, and he got out the last of the food they brought from the village below the mountain. They had pitifully little, but even Badl knew not to complain. It would have to do.
When they started out again, they noticed that the hawk had gone, but Laurel and Moriah, and then Boritz, and soon all of them felt that they were being shadowed. “I can smell them,” Badl whispered to Moriah who nodded and with big eyes tried to spot what her elf ears picked up.
When they stopped for the evening, Badl added another thought. “I don’t know if we have gone far enough to escape the night creatures tonight.” Flern nodded, but they were interrupted by a shriek from Andrea. Boritz started running. Moriah and Laurel had their bows out in a wink and Badl grabbed his double-blade, copper-headed ax that he had traded with the dwarfs from Movan Mountain to obtain. Flern drew no weapon, but she became the second there behind Laurel, and Moriah came third, showing a burst of elf speed herself. Poor Boritz came in fourth before Badl. Wlkn dared not leave the safety of the fire which he built as high as he could, and, of course, Elleya stayed with her Skinny Wilken.
A dead deer, a fresh killed, sat not ten feet from the tree where Andrea had been squatting down. It looked torn with claws and had its throat cut by big incisors. “Two cats,” Andrea said. “Lions. They dumped it and stared at me. I stayed quiet. I tried to stay in the shadows, but I couldn’t help the shriek when they moved. They left. They left this kill.” Andrea seemed confused. She had no trouble falling into Boritz’s arms for protection, but she looked to Laurel, Badl, and finally Flern for an explanation since Laurel and Badl were both staring at Flern as well.
“Lionesses. Lions are lazy louts,” Flern said, while she thought about it. “A gift.” Flern decided and announced. “Thank you.” She shouted toward the wilderness. She took out her long knife and handed it to Moriah. “Treat it with respect,” she said, but she did not explain whether she referred to the deer or the knife. Moriah acted respectful in any case.
They ate well enough, what with the greens they were able to dig out, even if those greens were more browns in the winter, and after they were satisfied, Badl spoke again about the creatures. “We may need some moonlight night movement tonight. I don’t know.”
“But won’t the Were go after the night creatures?” Elleya wondered. “I am sure the jellyfish would go after the sharks if they had the mind to do so. What?” Laurel, Badl and Flern all shook their heads. Badl said it out loud.
“The Were won’t go near the night creatures, if they are smart.”
“Say, but why don’t the Were morph into night creatures themselves?” Boritz asked.
“I don’t think they can.” Flern said, honestly enough. She knew she had to be getting something from Faya, but she still felt frustrated at being unable to reach her. “The night creatures are not native to this world, but then, neither are the Were, or the mermaids or centaurs or fauns or any number of things, come to mention it.” And that felt like more than just Faya speaking in her head, Flern did not wonder.
“Hold up,” Laurel said. “Someone is coming.” Everyone stood and looked around before wisely looking in the direction Laurel, Moriah and Badl looked.
“Pardon me.” An old man stepped forward but kept his distance at about ten feet. There were three dogs that looked remarkably like wolves around his feet. They wagged their tails and panted with their tongues rolling about. “It promises to be a cold night. May I join you for a bit?”
“Not the beasts.” Elleya spoke up quickly before anyone else could answer. She looked afraid and made no secret of it.
“Would you prefer kittens?” The old man asked.
Elleya looked up into the kindly old man’s face. “Maybe. I don’t know what kittens are.”
The old man merely looked at the three dogs and they transformed into lions, one male and two females.