Torin: The Beginning

By
C.E.Barrett


Chapter One

"How many more, Uncle" asked the boy. He rubbed his mittened hands together and huffed air out, just to see the little cloud form and fade. The man smiled.

"Only two, Torin,"he said. "Then we can go home and have some hot soup." He shifted the sack slung over his shoulder. Torin followed his uncle along the narrow trail through the woods, his much smaller feet lost in the large tracks Palu left in the soft ground. The boy stopped for a minute to dip his mitten into the clean snow that lingered under the bushes to the side of the trail. He licked the soft whiteness from his mitten, soothing his thirst a little.

"You're certain it's only two?" he asked. He hurried to catch up to the man.

"Quite certain," said Palu patiently. "Look, here's one now. The other is up ahead a little. Do you want to check it?" He dropped the sack to the ground and knelt to take the rabbit from the snare. Torin watched Palu's nimble fingers for a moment.

"Yes. I'll get the next one," he said, and ran ahead.

He was eager to prove himself to his uncle. Eight years of age, and small for his years, he was often dismissed by many adults as more hindrance than help. He spied the location of the snare, alerted by movement of whatever was caught. His heart leaped in his chest. He had never seen a live animal in a snare before. He crept forward.

Piteous whining reached his ears. He swallowed hard, then reached his hand out to push the branches aside. Golden eyes blinked up at him in the sudden light. Lips pulled back from small pointed teeth and what was meant to be a ferocious growl ended in a pained whine when the snared cub pulled against the cord around his hind leg. The little wolf forgot the boy and turned his head to worry at the snare with his teeth.

"Oh no," whispered the boy. "This is not good." He looked over his shoulder, but Palu was still busy with the previous catch, and probably resetting the snare. Torin touched the cub. It whirled about, cried out in pain again and snapped at the boy's hands. Torin pulled back, then took his mittens off. He wouldn't be able to free the cub with them on.

"It's okay, little one," he said, his voice as soft as he could make it. "I won't hurt you." He held his hand out carefully and yelped himself as the baby's teeth nipped his fingers. "How am I supposed to get you out if you bite me?" He blinked back tears of frustration and sympathy.

"What have ye there, wee Torin?" Palu asked from close by, setting down his bag full of rabbits.

"It's a wolf cub, Uncle," replied the boy. "I'm trying to set him free, but he keeps biting me. And look…there's blood on the snow from his leg. The cord is cutting him, Uncle Palu."

"Oh, my!" said Palu. "That's a very bad omen, Torin; catching a wolf. Here, get ready. I'm going to grab its muzzle, you free the leg. One, two..." The big hands reached down quickly. One wrapped around the cub's face, holding its mouth securely closed, the other pinned the struggling body to the ground. Torin quickly undid the loop from the cub's leg, his nimble little fingers able to get under the cord more easily than Palu's. The man held the little wolf a moment more before letting it go. It stumbled away, but stopped after a moment to lick its leg, whimpering pathetically.

"We can't just let it go like that," said the boy. "A bear might get it, or a great cat or something. It's just a baby, Uncle!"

Palu looked down at his brother's youngest son, a baby himself, really, the scrawny little thing. "What do you suggest, Torin? We can't bring it into the village. Its family won't want that."

"Can't we find his village?" The boy had evidently sneaked a peek at the cub's personal parts and identified him as male. "Please, Uncle. He's awf'ly small." Torin rather identified with this aspect of the hurt creature.

"I haven't the time to go to Tirna right now, Torin," said his uncle. "It's west of here, and home is back that way. Just let him go for now. He'll make his way home. Come now!" He took the boy's hand and led him away.

Torin craned his neck to watch the cub as long as possible. The wounded creature huddled under the bushes, its sore leg held at an awkward angle. A plan began to hatch in the boy's fertile mind.

"Off you go home, now, Torin," said Palu, as they entered the forest village. "I'll be taking these to the butcher now. Take two of these to your mother." He reached into the heavy rough spun sack and pulled out two fat rabbits. Torin took them by their hind legs.

"Thank you, Uncle," he said. His mind was not on the rabbits, but the hurt cub they had left behind. Palu patted the boy's head, a mildly worried expression on his face.

"We did the right thing by that little wolf, Torin," he said. "His mama will find him and he'll be fine. You wouldn't have wanted her to find him in your hands, not with his foot hurt like that."

"But wolfs don't kill people, do they, Uncle?" Torin asked. He hadn't considered what might have happened if the cub's mother smelled the cub's blood on his hands. The idea of being on the receiving end of an angry mama wolf's teeth had no real appeal to it.

"No-o-o-o-o-o. At least, not in my memory. But there was a time of unease between us when the last king, may the gods torment his spirit for eternity, had his infamous Hunt. Some of the wolves took vengeance on whatever Dwellers they could find. It was a bad time, Torin. I don't want you to get hurt by an upset she-wolf. Just rest easy that he'll be fine."

He nodded. "I will, Uncle," he said, looking at the rabbits in his hands. "I better get home now. Thank you for bringing me with you."

He hoisted the rabbits and trotted off home before Palu could see the plan hatching behind his eyes. Torin heard his uncle heave a great sigh as he went. He hoped Palu wouldn't follow and tell Torin's parents about the wolf. His mother would never let him back into the woods if she knew.

The back door was open when he got home. Orian came out to gather another armful of wood to fill the kitchen woodbox. He waved.

"Hey, Tor. How was the rabbiting?" he asked. Torin held up the catch and he grinned. "Rabbit pie or stew for supper tonight! Yum." Orian went about his job and Torin took the rabbits into the house.

"Mama!" he called. "Palu sent two rabbits." He kicked the last bits of snow off his boots and stepped into the big kitchen. His mother stood at the solid table, kneading dough for bread. Behind her, a fire crackled merrily in the fireplace, casting its welcome heat into the room. Four-year-old Inval stood on a stool at the table, patting her piece of dough. Arnu, a young lady just turned seven, looked up from the rolls she had just set on a flat pan, ready for the oven. Their mother, Invanu, looked up at the sound of Torin's voice.

She smiled when she saw the size of the rabbits Torin held out for her inspection. "Wonderful," she said. "Set them in the pantry, Torin, and go find Vanial. I think he's outside with Barvan, chopping wood. Tell him I want him to skin and cut up those rabbits." She put the final touches on a substantial meal that she was packing into two dinner pails and gave them to Vantor.

"Here. Now take this to your father and brothers. There is enough there for you, if Bartorial wants you to stay and work."

"Why can't Vanial do it?" he grumped.

"Because he has jobs to do here," she said in her don't-argue-with-me tone. Vantor heaved a sigh that said it was hard being the slave of the house, although, in truth, he was the one who usually managed to disappear when extra chores reared their heads.

Torin stayed out of the way, and played with his littlest sister, Inval, to keep her out from under their mother's feet. With Vantor and the two oldest eating with Bartorial at his shop, there were still six for lunch at home. Invanu and Vanial served it up, Orian finished stocking the woodbox, Arnu, the other sister, put utensils on the table and Torin wrestled Inval into her special chair. She was only four and too little to reach from the bench.

When they were done and the table cleared off, Torin put his coat back on.

"Where are you off to now, Torin?" Invanu asked.

"I thought I saw some winterberry bushes," he said. "I wanted to make sure, if you don't mind. And may I take a little more with me? I'm still hungry."

She stared at him. He had eaten as much as Orian, who was two years older and had the biggest appetite of all of them. Torin smiled as sweetly as he could. Invanu's eyebrows drew together."I'm not sure what you're up to, but don't get hurt, and don't bother anyone. You'll have to put your own dinner pail together. Take the little one." She gave him another intense look, but left him to his own devices as she went into the other room to take up her sewing.

He went to the pantry, got the smallest of the dinner pails--metal with a close-fitting lid--and filled it with bread and milk. He made sure the lid was on tight, put his mittens and boots on, and with the pail slung by its strap across his chest, Torin hurried out and made his way back along the path he had taken with Uncle Palu.

He fretted as he went. He kept thinking that he would find the cub eaten by a bear, even though most of them were still sleeping in their winter dens. Or maybe he would have stumbled into another of Palu's snares. Or maybe he might have just died from blood loss. Torin was so caught up in all these images that he reached the place where the cub should have been before he realized it.

There was the blood-stained snow, but he couldn't see the little wolf. His first reaction was to cry from frustration, but he fought down the tears and thought, "What would Uncle Palu do?"

Follow his tracks. Of course. The thought was loud and clear, as if someone had spoken in his ear.

Chapter Two

He looked around for signs, and noticed drops of blood, and a small stain where the cub had sat. With his face almost to the ground, he followed the faint trail, really not paying attention to his surroundings, so intent on finding the cub was he.

A high-pitched would-be growl made him look up. There, ahead under a bush was the little cub. Torin crept forward. The golden eyes glared at him again from under a bush. The cub sat with its hurt leg held out at an awkward angle, growling at him. He crouched down and took the pail from his shoulder.

"Here, little wolf," he said in a coaxing tone. "I brought you something good to eat."

The cub tried to snarl and Torin laughed at the sound it made. The wolf cub was so little and so cute, with its round head and thick fur, that it was hard for Torin to be afraid. He opened the pail and dipped his fingers into the soggy bread. He scooped some out, grimacing at the feel.

The cub's chin lifted. Its nostrils twitched. A pink tongue licked at its lips. Torin held his hand out to offer the milk and bread mix. The cub sniffed it suspiciously, growling softly in its throat. Torin leaned closer. The cub bared tiny teeth, but instead of pulling back, Torin pressed the milky bread to the cub's mouth. Milk squeezed out against its teeth and slid around its gums.

He blinked, licking his lips again. Torin touched the bread to the animal's tongue as it stuck out. He pulled it back, swallowed and edged forward. Torin scooped out more and held it out. This time, he lapped it from the boy's hand. He stared at the pail.

"Smart baby," Torin said. As the cub ate, Torin touched the creature's back and patted it gently. It growled a little, but subsided when it realized he was not trying to take the food away. Torin studied it as it ate. It was a very small cub, probably not even weaned yet, and should be returned to its mother. He could not understand how it had wandered so far that some member of its clan had not found it. He fed it milk and bread until its belly bulged, and then he picked it up.

The cub squirmed a little, but its full belly made it sleepy. Torin put it inside his shirt and closed his coat around it. Its head was just below his chin, its nose sticking out. It sighed and made smacking noises.

Torin wrapped his arms under the bulge the cub made to hold it in place. Its soft fur was warm on his skin, although the little bit of snow that got in with the cub made him gasp. He looked around to get his bearings. For a terrifying moment, as he looked around, he thought he had gotten himself hopelessly lost. Panic nibbled at his mind, but he took a deep breath and thought of everything he had ever been told. He could backtrack along the trail he had followed, or ... Uncle Palu said Tirna was west. Well, then that's where they would go.

He replaced the lid on the pail and slung it over his shoulder, then looked about for a clearing where he could determine the position of the sun. Once he was sure where west was, he could go from there. His sharp eyes saw bright light ahead, and he found the open area he wanted.

"Now, where was that Forest Folk village supposed to be? West and north, I think." The sound of his own voice gave him courage. He set out, the cub tucked into the front of his shirt, its sharp little claws scratching his chest and belly. He went through the woods, looking for the road. He knew it had to be around somewhere. There was a beer maker in Tirna who sold his ales to the inn in Oakwood, and Torin had seen his big wagon trundling out of the village and back in the general direction Uncle Palu said Tirna lay.

It was a clear and lovely day. The cold was just sharp enough to nip at his nose and ears, but not bitter enough to make him turn back. The sun was bright in a pale blue sky which he could see through the naked branches of the leaf-dropping trees. The evergreens looked black against the sky, but he saw that some of them were starting to show pale green new growth. Spring was most definitely laying her gentle hands on them.

He kept glancing at the position of the sun as a guide. He had learned that much from his uncle, but he still couldn't find the road. How could an entire road, big enough for a beer wagon drawn by two wide-backed oxen or horses disappear? It wasn't reasonable. Still, he wasn't about to give up and he kept on toward Tirna--or so he hoped. He walked for what seemed an age, despairing of ever finding anyone. Suddenly, the little cub lifted its nose and howled. Torin shouted in surprise and stumbled. He almost fell and his arms closed around the cub. It howled again. An answering ululation made the hair on his arms and the back of his neck stand on end.

Torin became utterly still. He thought of the blood on the cub's foot. He thought of an angry she-wolf. And he thought of something else: Uncle Palu had said he thought Tirna was too far for a cub to wander without his mother. What if the cub was from somewhere else? What if wherever he was from wasn't friends with the Folk and wolves of Tirna? What if Torin put him down and the wolves answering his howls turned out to be unfriendly and hurt him or worse? He needed to find the village and people to ask for advice. The Folk would know what to do with a hurt cub. He hurried on, shushing the cub as he went. And then a wolf drifted out of the undergrowth, like smoke and as silent. It stood and regarded him. Another appeared from a different direction: a third: a fourth. He slowed and stopped.

The cub wriggled inside his shirt, its sharp claws scoring his belly and chest. He hissed and tightened his stomach to get it away from the claws.

"Hush, baby," he said to it. "And stop it. You're hurting me." To Torin's surprise, it did stop. It whimpered a little and licked his chin.

The big wolves came closer. They were joined by three more, and then one turned and ran away. The others made a semi-circle around him and came toward him. He edged away toward the open spot. One moved to block his progress and he turned in a different direction. He began to feel like a goat being herded by a group of children.

"No! I didn't hurt him! I didn't!" said the boy. "He got caught in my uncle's snare. I was trying to find his family!" His heart beat wildly within his thin chest. All the stories he had ever heard about the Forest Folk said that the wolves who shared their villages were more intelligent than most animals. He prayed to all the gods he knew that this part of the stories was right.

They kept him moving along, changing direction now and then. He couldn't tell if they meant harm or not, but he had no choice. There was no way he could outrun even one, let alone the whole pack, and he couldn't leave the cub for them to do what they would to it. Torin walked on. He realized there were houses among the trees now and a man coming toward them. Torin went to him, hoping he would provide the help Torin needed and keep him safe.

When the boy reached the man, the wolves wandered away, although a couple stayed near. Torin licked dry lips with an equally dry tongue. The cub snuffed at him and licked his chin again. Torin thought he saw the man smile, but it was gone as fast as it came. The man had kind eyes, though, and Torin trusted him on the spot.

"What is this?" he asked. "And who are you?"

"I'm Torin Invanusson of Oakwood," Torin said. "And this little wolf got caught in my uncle's rabbit snare. His foot is hurt. Can you help?"

"Oakwood! You're quite far from home, Torin." He stepped closer and reached for the cub. "Let me have a look at him."

Torin took the baby wolf out of his shirt and gave him to the man. He examined the foot, tutting to the cub. He gave it a gentle shake.

"You've worried everyone half to death, Osgoode," he said. He looked at Torin. The boy hadn't closed his coat and shirt properly, being more interested in the cub, and the man saw the scratches on Torin's chest. The smile reached his eyes, although his lips remained closed. "I think you had best come to the Healer, too." He carried the cub in one arm and held his hand out to Torin, who took it and let the man lead him through Tirna to the Healer's house.

It stood close to the main road which ran straight for a short stretch through the centre of the village. A healthy herb garden grew along one side and disappeared around the back. A small sign depended from a post at the end of a short path, close by the road to inform travellers of the Healer's presence.

As they approached, a she-wolf loped toward them.

"This is his mother," said Lordach. "She has been frantic since he disappeared." He held the baby down for her to sniff and lick. "Now let us get inside to Shadra, Aine," he said. He opened the door and stood back to let the cub's mother go first, then he gestured to Torin to follow and brought up the rear.

"Patient for you, Shadra," he said to the woman inside. He passed her the cub and explained what had happened. Torin nodded at Lordach's description of events. The Healer looked at Torin with raised eyebrows and then looked at the man.

"Well now, Lordach, will wonders never cease?" She shook her head and then focussed on the cub's injury. When the cut had been cleaned, anointed with salve and bandaged, Lordach said, "Open your shirt, Torin. Let the Healer see."

Her hands were strong and knowing and she quickly applied a little of the same salve to his chest and belly. He had just retucked his shirt when the door opened and a man who seemed familiar, and woman who did not, came in.

The man knelt by the she-wolf and Osgoode and caressed them both. He kissed the she-wolf's head before looking to Lordach for the tale. Lordach told it again, then made proper introductions.

"Torin Invanusson of Oakwood, I am pleased to introduce you to our First Elder, Aglora and to Brewmaster Kieran." That was why he seemed familiar. 'Twas his wagons that brought his father's favourite beer to Oakwood. "You have met Healer Shadra, I am Lordach, and that is Aine with the trouble-making Osgoode, whom you saved."

Torin mumbled as polite a response as he could and tried to smile. The day's events had been somewhat overwhelming and he wanted to go home, eat supper and go to bed. “I'm glad he'll be fine,” he said. “My uncle was very upset when we found him, but he thought the mama wolf would be along soon, after he took the snare off. He said we should just leave him there, but I was afraid something might happen to him. He's so little.”

The mother wolf had insinuated her head under his hand while he was talking and he found himself stroking her ears. When he realized what he was doing, Torin snatched his hand away. "I'm sorry," he said. "Was that rude?"

Lordach laughed softly and the others smiled.

"No, Torin. It's not rude." Lordach put a gentle hand on his head. "Come now. It's getting late. I'll take you home with me for supper and someone will run a message to your family. I'll lead you home tomorrow."

A protest rose in the boy's mind, but his nerve failed him. His father had taught him to obey without question. He followed Lordach as he led Torin through the village toward his home. The gathering dusk surprised the boy. He hadn't realized how long it had taken to bring Osgoode home.

"Lordach," he said. Lordach looked down at him. "Why can't I go home with whoever is taking the message to my mother?" It made sense, that if someone could get to Oakwood and back, then surely he could tag along. Then Invanu wouldn't worry and Bartorial wouldn't be too angry.

Lordach smiled, and Torin noticed again that his lips stayed closed. "We have secret ways that are faster than the road, and the messenger will be running. I don't mean to be insulting to you, Torin, but you're too small to keep up. You'll be safe tonight and I will take you home after breakfast tomorrow."

Torin nodded. He was all too familiar with "you're too little" as a reason for not being able to do things. He resigned himself to staying at a stranger's house; something he had never done before. Still, despite his concerns, Torin was curious to see the inside of a Folk home. Would there be wolves wandering in and out? Would they sit at the table for supper? What sort of food did the Folk eat?

They reached a cottage that blended with the forest. The roof was thickly thatched and vigorous ivy covered part of one wall. An enormous wisteria hugged the roof and draped its fingers down the other end of the wall from the ivy. Its trunk stood just around the corner at the end wall of the house.

Warm light glowed from a window that the wisteria had been trimmed back from and Torin was suddenly eager to be inside. Lordach opened the wooden door and stood back to allow him to enter. Torin glanced up at him, into the gentle eyes, and went in.

The light came from a lantern hanging from a hook in a ceiling beam. They were in what seemed to be the main room of the house. There was a wide fireplace at one end, with an oven to one side. A big pot hung on its hook near the flames and a savoury stew simmered. The aromas of the stew and baking bread made his stomach growl out, loud and startling.

Lordach laughed. A woman came through a doorway that led to a pantry--Torin could see the shelves and hanging bunches of herbs behind her. She looked at him in surprise.

"Lordach?" She asked.

"We have a guest for the night, my dearest," he said. "This is Torin of Oakwood. He brought Osgoode home after the little rascal got himself snared. Torin, this is the Light of my heart, Atina."

"I'll try not to be too much trouble," Torin said. He knew from his father that he was often more trouble than he was worth. His stomach rumbled again, and his cheeks grew hot.

"We should feed him before his belly devours him," said Lordach.

"Will he eat first, then?" asked Atina.

"No, he can eat with us," said Lordach. Atina stared at him, frowning. He smiled at her and then showed Torin where to hang his coat and put his boots. He gave the boy a small pair of rabbit-skin slippers to wear.

"You have a little boy?" Torin asked, pulling the slippers on. They were warm and comfortable. "Our boys and girls are all grown," Lordach said. "But we keep those for little ones who come to visit. Come sit by the fire and warm yourself, Torin. Supper will be ready soon." Torin climbed into a big armchair out of the way and curled up, his eyes half-closed, listening to the conversation.

"What is a Dweller boy doing bringing one of ours home?" asked Atina in a low voice.

"The right thing, according to his own conscience," said Lordach. "It's a good thing, too. We would never have found Osgoode in time. Who would have thought he would have been so far from home? He must have climbed into that trader wagon that was here yesterday and then fallen or jumped out."

"Or the trader realized he had a wolf cub and put him out," she said darkly.

They were puttering about the kitchen, setting the table for supper, checking the stew and bread, as they talked.

"Best for him that Osgoode jumped," said Lordach. "It won't do the trader any good if it turns out he abandoned a baby in the snow." He looked up from the stew pot. "We won't know until Osgoode learns to speak a little better. Cub chatter can be damnably difficult to understand." He tasted the stew. "I'll tell you one thing, though. When the boy there brought the cub to me, almost trembling from terror, Osgoode tried to comfort him with a lick."

Atina put down the bread pan she had taken from the oven. "What?"

"He did. And it turns out he accepted food from our young guest as well."

"And this is why we are breaking bread with him? Because a wayward and starving cub ate his food and licked his face?"

Lordach went to her and took her face in his hands. He kissed her forehead and cheek and lips. "No. He is joining us because he deserves to for what he did. Consider how young he is, my Light, and how frightened he must have been when Eilish and the others came at him from the bushes. He's a Dweller boy; he had no way to know for certain they wouldn't hurt him. But he didn't abandon the cub and flee. He swallowed his fear and brought Osgoode home."

Atina glanced at Torin, then put her arms around Lordach for a brief hug. "You're right. It's just that I've not had a meal with a Dweller before. It feels odd."

"Nor have I," said Lordach. "And I can guarantee he has never eaten with Folk, so let's rouse him and feed him and see how we all get along."

He went to the boy and touched his shoulder. "Time to eat, my young friend," he said. Torin opened his eyes all the way and stretched before climbing out of the chair and taking his place at the table.

Atina and Lordach served the meal together, which Torin found odd. Bartorial would certainly never have helped Mama, although it was all right for Vanial or Orian to give her a hand. Lordach put a bowl of steaming stew before him while Atina cut the bread into thick slices. A pot of butter with a round-bladed knife sat on the table for anyone who wanted butter on their bread. Torin certainly did, but he wasn't sure if it was polite to help himself.

Lordach must have seen his longing gaze, because he moved the butter pot closer. "Best put it on while the bread is hot," he said. "It tastes best melted in, don't you agree?"

Torin did and dug in, putting dollops of butter on his bread and watching it melt. His stomach announced to anyone listening that it had better get something soon or it would be forced to climb his throat and devour everything in sight. But he waited for his hosts to sit as well. Had he started eating before Bartorial at home, he would have received a box on the ear, not to mention that they hadn't yet said their thanks to the gods. Lordach and Atina sat and held out their hands. Well, that was the same as at home, and Torin took theirs in his. They bowed their heads and Torin waited. Lordach gave the prayer. "Creator of All, we offer our thanks for the bountiful food and drink. We also thank you for the safe return of the missing cub and the courage of the boy who joins us here. May your blessings fall on us all."

They released his hands and began to eat. Torin was afraid the various gods of his people would take umbrage at being left out of the prayer, and wreak havoc on this cozy home. He whispered a quick prayer of thanks to his own gods before he took up his spoon and bread and fell to.

The stew was tasty, flavoured with herbs and spices that were familiar from different dishes at home. It reminded him of the bread stuffing his mother put into the big wild birds they sometimes had. There were generous chunks of meat and a variety of vegetables. When he saw Lordach dipping his bread into the broth, he followed suit, hoping what was polite for adults was also polite for children.

Lordach and Atina talked about the day, the things they had done and discussed plans for the morrow. Torin listened, as he always did at home. Bartorial was of the firm belief that children should not be heard, especially at the dinner table. Barin and Barvan, and more recently, Vanial, were allowed to take part, but only if they had something relevant to say. So when Lordach looked at him and spoke, he didn't know what to do.

He had been looking around the room, taking in the polished wood of the floor, the bright rag rugs, the comfortable chairs before the fire, and then Torin saw a rare treasure. A bookcase. With books! Three shelves of them! He tried not to stare, but Lordach must have noticed and he spoke. Torin jumped and his gaze jumped from the books to Lordach's face. The boy's face flushed and he felt the familiar I've done something wrong and now I have to pay

Lordach gave him a puzzled look and glanced over his shoulder at the shelves. He smiled at him and said, "I asked if you like books, Torin."

Torin nodded, waiting for Lordach to reach across and smack him for staring so rudely at his things. Instead, Lordach said, "Well, when supper is done and the clean-up is all done, perhaps you would let me read to you."

Torin felt trapped. Surely this was a set-up of some kind. Lordach would pretend that he was going to read and then he would hit Torin with the book to teach him not to be rude. But Lordach's expression was puzzled, not angry, and there was a strange sadness in his eyes. His hand moved across the table toward Torin and the boy flinched. Lordach exchanged a look with Atina as he pulled his hand back, using it to pick up another piece of bread.

"I would like you to read aloud, dearest," said Atina. "It makes my knitting go faster. Will you join us, Torin?"

Her voice was kind, but the boy was still afraid. Vantor did that sometimes--used a gentle voice and kind words to lure his brother in. Torin decided to trust them to a point, but be ready for the unpleasant when it happened. He nodded slowly.

"You don't speak much, do you?" said Lordach.

Torin shook his head. In truth, he tended toward chattering on about everything with his mama and Uncle Palu and a few others, but fear had a way of tying his tongue. A frown touched Lordach's brow, then vanished. He looked again at his wife for a moment. Something unspoken passed between them. Torin knew it was about him, but couldn't understand what it was. He picked at the rest of the meal, his appetite waning, and his eyes focused carefully on the bowl.

Torin ate the rest of his supper, not wanting to seem even ruder than he already did and thereby bringing wrath on his head. Lordach and Atina fell silent until the meal was done. Atina rose first to clear the table. Torin looked up at her.

"Should I help?" he asked.

She smiled at him. "No, thank you. We'll have this done in no time."

Lordach pushed his chair back. "You may pick a book to look at while you wait for us, if you like. The ones on the bottom shelf have pictures in them."

This was a terribly tempting offer. Fear warred with desire. Torin chewed the corner of his mouth and frowned. Lordach rose, tucked his chair back in its place, and held his hand out to the boy. Torin looked into his eyes. The kindness there allayed some of the fear and he took the offered hand, slid from his seat and let Lordach lead him to the shelf.

Lordach crouched at Torin's side, letting go of his hand. His eyes were level with Torin's. He put his hand on the boy's shoulder. When Bartorial did that, it generally meant bad things, but Lordach's hand didn't squeeze or grip painfully. It sat, warm and comforting, like Mama's hands, on the thin shoulder.

"Atina and I have to clean up a little, so I can't show you all the books right now," he began. "But you are welcome to take them out to look at them. Just take one at a time and put it back before you take the next. And when the work is done, we'll pick one to read. Is that all right with you?"

"Yes, Sir," Torin said.

Lordach smiled and his hand rose from Torin's shoulder to cup his cheek. "You don't have to call me 'Sir'," he said. "Friends call each other by name, Torin. Now, here's a stool for you to sit on. I'll be back before you know it."

He set the low stool before the shelf and set the first book in Torin's lap. He patted the boy's head, and for a moment Torin thought he was going to speak again, but he merely gave him a kind and tender smile. Then he went to help clear the table and wash up.

Torin opened the cover of the book and lost himself in the wonderful illustrations.

Chapter Three

Torin had made his way through half the book, or perhaps a little more, when there was a knock at the door. The top half opened, which surprised and enchanted him. He had never seen a door that opened like that before. He stared.

Kieran looked in and saw him. "Just the one I hoped to see," he said. He waved to Lordach and Atina before continuing to Torin, "I spoke with your mother and explained the situation. She was concerned for your safety, but I set her mind at ease. I told her we will not mistreat our young hero." He smiled as Lordach did, with his lips closed over his teeth.

Torin wondered who Kieran meant by "young hero" and realized with a start that perhaps he, himself was the one spoken of. He was hardly hero material, but he couldn't think who else it might be. It wouldn't be the cub, because Torin's mama wouldn't care about him. Torin smiled back cautiously. Kieran winked at him, his smile never flagging.

"We're taking good care of him, Kieran. Never fear," said Lordach.

"I knew you would. And now, I'm off home. I just wanted the boy to know his family has been told. Good night." He pulled the top half of the door closed with a cheery wave to the room at large.

Lordach and Atina had just finished their after supper work and Lordach went to Torin, who up at him, less afraid, but still cautious and ready to bolt if he had to. Lordach crouched again by the boy's side.

"So, have you been enjoying that book?" he asked.

"Yes, Sir," Torin said, and flushed. He had forgotten to call Lordach by name.

Lordach smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners a little. "Is this the one you would like me to read? Or should we look for something else?"

"I would like to hear any of them," Torin said. "You should choose. You know what they're about and I might pick something wrong." "I see. Well, this book you are looking at tells of the last King in Destrain and his terrible Hunt. It's rather sad in places. This book"--he put his finger on a different one--"is the story of how we Folk came to the Great Wood. And this one is a story of the tree spirits and what happened to an unlucky woodsman who angered them. That one is about a young wolf who gets lost in a town of people who are not Folk and what happens to him. Which would you like?"

"That last one, please," Torin said. It sounded like an interesting story.

Lordach took the book from his lap, put it on the shelf and took the other book out. He went across the room to his armchair by the fire. Atina was already in her chair with her basket of yarn by her side. She was sorting out needles and yarn and a partly finished garment Torin didn't recognize. Lordach settled himself, then looked at the boy.

"I suppose you don't know me well enough to sit in his lap while I read," he said. Torin hesitated. He loved sitting in Mama's lap when she read, but Father said it was babyish and stupid.

"I better not," Torin said at last. "Father wouldn't like it."

"I see. Well then, bring your stool closer so you can see the pictures." He gestured to a place near the chair.

Torin stood up and carried the low stool to the place Lordach had indicated. Torin found he could sit comfortably and lean against the arm of the chair to see the pictures. Lordach held the book so they could both see it easily. He smiled down at the young boy.

"You know," he said before he began to read. "When our...children...were small, they used to gather round for this story. It's nice to have a youngster to read to again." He opened the book and began to read.

Torin liked listening to Lordach reading. He read like Mama did, with lots of expression and different voices for the people speaking. The boy forgot where he was and leaned closer until his head was resting against Lordach's left arm. Lordach reached around with his right hand and patted Torin's cheek without missing a word of the story.

It was a good story; one Torin had never heard before. He felt bad for the young wolf running the streets of the city trying to find his people again, but it was funny in places, too. Torin liked when the "blind" beggar helped him hide from the people who were chasing him and then helped him get back where he belonged.

Torin's eyes drooped and fluttered by the time the story was over. Lordach smiled.

"Bedtime for you, I think," he said. "Just let me put the book away first." Torin sat up straight, rubbing his eyes and yawning. He thought of something he had to do before he went to bed, and he said so.

"Put your boots and coat on, then," said Lordach. "I'll show you where it is."

That was fine with Torin. He hated having a used pot sitting there all night and he would rather go out, no matter how cold the little house was. He wasted no time--it had gotten quite chilly--and they hurried back into the house. He put his coat and boots back where they belonged and stood in front of the fire for a few minutes. Lordach had gone into the other room and Atina was still sitting and knitting. Torin turned his back to the fire, to warm that side of him and noticed a big basket off to one side. It had low sides and was lined with soft looking hides--deer, he thought. He remembered suddenly that he was in a Folk home and there must be wolves that belonged here. Every Folk home was supposed to have wolves. He wondered where they were, but thought it might be rude to ask.

Lordach came back with a shirt in his hands. "I'm afraid I haven't a nightshirt in your size," he said. "I thought you could wear this to sleep in. It'll be a bit long in the sleeves, but it should serve."

Torin was tired enough to sleep in his clothes, but his mama wouldn't have approved. He took the shirt.

"Is it polite if I change here?" he asked. They both gave him a startled look and then chuckled. He wondered what he had said. He only wanted to get changed before the fire where it was warm.

Lordach took Torin's face in his hands and kissed his forehead, still chuckling to himself. "Yes, my young friend. Go ahead." Torin wished he understood his amusement, but he had no idea then what Changing meant to the Folk.

He took off his clothes, folded them, and stood in his singlet. Lordach helped him into the shirt. He folded the sleeves up so Torin's hands could be free. The hem fell almost to his toes and Torin thought it would make an admirable nightshirt.

"Where do I sleep?" Torin asked as he picked up his discarded clothes. Father would have had his hide had he left them lying around.

"In here," said Lordach. He led the boy into the other room. A small lantern showed a bed built into one wall, with a curtain to pull across the alcove. The bed was big enough for two or three, and Torin deduced it belonged to Lordach and Atina. Another big basket was on the floor, near a much smaller fireplace which had a low fire burning in it.

"I hope you don't mind the basket," said Lordach. Torin looked up at him and then at it. It was plenty big enough for a small boy, and this basket had a bearskin in it.

"Won't your wolf mind?" Torin asked before he could control his mouth. He winced internally, knowing he had said something wrong. Lordach took his clothes from him and put them on a chair near the door.

"Not at all. In fact, the wolves of this house won't be in tonight, and even if they were, you have nothing to fear from any wolf in Tirna. I want you to know this." He squatted in front of Torin and took both his shoulders in his gentle hands. "You are a hero to us, Torin. You have no idea how important, how big and wonderful a thing you did by bringing our baby home." He pressed his lips together and puffed out his cheeks. It made his beard fluff out and gave him a wolfish look himself. "I wish I could tell you, make you understand, but not tonight. Perhaps someday, when we are better friends, you will understand. But trust me on this--there is not a single wolf in this village who would harm you on purpose. There is no danger for you here. None." His gaze was intense, but kind, and Torin felt the truth of his words.

Torin smiled and the last of his fear fled. Something else occurred to him, and again, his mouth ran on its own. "Do you think I could see the cub again before I go home?"

"Of course. He would be angry with me if I took you away without letting you visit. He said you're his friend."

Torin gave him a doubting look. The cub had said that--or anything.

"It's true," he said. "Surely you have heard that we Folk talk to the wolves and the wolves talk back?" Torin nodded, the dubious look still on his face. "Well, 'tis solemn truth. We do and they do, and even ones as young as Osgoode can make themselves understood. It's a bit like baby talk from a small child, but we all heard him at Shadra's. He said you gave him something good to eat, and that you kept him warm and petted his head and that you're his friend. Now, into the basket with you."

He released Torin's shoulders and pulled back the bearskin. Another was underneath and the boy climbed between them. Lordach tucked the top one around him and stroked his hair.

"Sleep well, Torin," he said, then rose and went back to the main room. Torin could hear the low murmur of his and Atina's voices without being able to make out the words. He thought about the day, and being called a hero--twice!--and finally drifted off to sleep.

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