Tales of the Folk

Chapter One - A Chance Meeting

"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 sighed and 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 right now, Torin," said his uncle. "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 roughspun sack and pulled out two fat rabbits. Torin took them by their hind legs.

"Thank you, Uncle. These will make grand pies for supper." He smiled up at Palu and turned toward the large house on the right side of the main road. He went around to the back of the house and went in through the door that led to a small room off the kitchen.

"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 at 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 brushed hair back from her face with a floury hand. "You'll have to fend for yourself for the midday meal. I'm too busy at the moment."

"It's all right, Mama," said Torin. He smiled. "May I go back in the wood a little? Uncle Palu and I found some winterberries. I want to see if they are ready to pick yet." Part of what he had said was true enough. They had seen a winterberry bush during their walk, but the fruit would not be ripe for weeks yet. Invanu, her mind occupied with the baking and her daughters' attempts to help, did not think too deeply about her youngest son's request.

"Yes, you may go, but be home for supper. And don't forget to send Vanial in!" She reached over to catch Inval before she toppled from her stool.

"I won't forget," Torin called. He grabbed a bit of yesterday's bread and cheese from the pantry and hurried out before his mother changed her mind. He found his brothers at the wood pile and passed the message along. Then he ran into the Wood--a small boy off doing the things small boys do in late spring. No one paid him any heed as he trotted back along the trail that led to the wounded wolf cub.

He made his way back to the snare where they had found the wolf. 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. Golden eyes peered at him suspiciously. He held out a bit of the cheese he had tucked into his shirt.

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

The eyes flicked toward the cheese, the nostrils twitched. A pink tongue lolled forth. Torin sat, not moving, the cheese extended. The cub crept forward. The boy put the cheese down and pulled back his hand. He watched the wolf cub sniff and then eat the offering. He held out another piece. The cub came closer. This time it took the food from his hand. The next bit he held nearer to his own body, luring the wolf closer still. As it ate, he 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.

The boy studied the animal. 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 cheese and bread until its belly bulged, and then he picked it up.

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 ...

He 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 walked for what seemed an age, despairing of ever finding anyone. Suddenly, the little cub lifted its nose and howled, scaring the boy half to death. An answering ululation made the hair on his arms and the back of his neck stand on end. In moments, three adult wolves seemed to appear before him, far too close for comfort. The cub wriggled and whimpered. One of the wolves growled menacingly.

"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.

The animals surrounded him and began to herd him more west than north. As long as he went where they indicated, they remained aloof, but if he tried to veer from the path, they snarled frighteningly. Inside his shirt, the cub continued to wriggle from time to time, scrabbling against Torin's skin. Torin winced against the pain of the scratches, but kept his arms firmly wrapped around the little wolf.

"Stop it!" he said firmly. "You're hurting me, baby. I just want to get you home safe and I can't put you down here. What if these wolves want to hurt you? Then what?"

Bright golden eyes blinked at him from the furry face. The cub grumbled a little in its throat before settling down. Torin sighed. He glanced at the wolves around him and kept on moving along the path they were herding him down.

Then, suddenly, he was on a wide, dusty road. People were moving about, and he realized that there were houses there, but so well-blended with the forest itself that it took a moment to understand that they were houses. A young man strode toward them.

"What's this? Who are you?" he demanded.

"Torin of Oakwood, Sir," said the boy politely. "I am looking for this cub's family." He moved his arms far enough apart for the man to see the cub's face peering out from Torin's shirt. "He was caught in a snare near my village...his leg is quite badly cut."

"Show me," said the man. Torin pulled the little wolf from his shirt and held him up.

The man took the pup and examined the cut leg closely. "Well, Torin of Oakwood, young Osgoode owes you his life, I think." He scowled at the cub. "Weren't you told to stay out of the Trader's cart? Do you have any idea how worried everyone has been?"

An elegant-looking older woman drew near. "What is all the fuss, Lordach?" she asked. He bowed his head to her.

"Elder Aglora, this Dweller boy has brought us the missing cub! Osgoode must have crept into the Trader's cart and then either jumped or fallen out near the boy's home. He got himself caught in a snare." He turned to Torin. "One of yours?"

Torin shook his head vehemently. "Oh, no! But it was one my uncle's...for catching rabbits. He was very upset when he saw the wolf. It's bad luck, he says."

Lordach and Aglora smiled drily. "So it is, Dweller boy," said the woman. "Take Osgoode to Shadra. She will treat the cut," she said to Lordach. "I will tend to this pup. Come with me, boy."

"His name is Torin, Elder," said Lordach, as he turned to leave. She inclined her head in response.

Torin followed the Elder to one of the larger buildings. Inside, tables and benches filled the center of the room. More tables with various pots and platters were to one side. Barrels of water and beer sat squatly on the floor.

"Are you hungry, Torin?" she asked. His round eyes answered her first.

"Yes, I am, Elder," he said.

"Well, he has manners, at the least," she murmured to herself. "Then take what you want, but eat what you take," she told him. He looked up at her, then followed her instructions. He got himself a plate, and filled it with bread and stew, then took a cup of water. She motioned for him to sit at one of the tables and sat across from him, watching him devour his meal.

"So, you found the wounded cub, and then what?" she asked. He told her all he had done, and how the wolves had found him, thanks to the cub's howling. He did not say how frightened he had been, but she read it in his face.

"Why did you not simply give the pup to the adults and then go?"

"Why...because I didn't know if they were his family or his family's enemies or what? I found him, my uncle's trap hurt him, he...he...he was my 'sponsibilty." He stumbled over the long word. 'Responsibility' was a concept he had been learning recently and was taking it very seriously.

Aglora smiled inwardly. "I see. Well, now that you've eaten, let's go see how he's doing, shall we? Put your dishes in that tub, there, please." He did as he was told and followed the woman again.

When they reached the house of the herbalist and healer, Shadra, a she-wolf was waiting inside, looking anxiously at the cub. Shadra had applied a salve and was bandaging the cut.

"Do NOT let him chew on this, Aine," she said. "Elder Aglora! What brings you here?"

"This is the Dweller boy who rescued Osgoode and brought him home," said Aglora. "I thought Aine might like to see him."

Torin remembered every tale, every story, every whisper he had ever heard about the Forest Folk. It all seemed to be true. His eyes flicked from face to face. He turned to Aine. "Are you Osgoode's mother?" She wuffed in response, which he took to mean 'yes'. "I'm real sorry my uncle's snare hurt him. It was supposed to catch rabbits, not Folk. But I'm glad he's home okay." He looked back at Aglora. "I have to get home, too. I told my mother I'd be back before dark."

"We will send her a message," said Aglora. "It is far too late for you to set out home now. Tomorrow, Lordach will show you the way. Tonight, you will stay here."

He could not see any way out of the situation, but he did not think these people meant him any harm. Aine nudged his hand. He patted her head absentmindedly then snatched his hand away.

"I'm sorry! Was that rude?" He looked frantically back and forth. Aglora and Shadra laughed.

"No, not at all. In fact, it was what she had in mind," said Shadra.

The boy's shoulders slumped with relief. He did not want to upset anyone by displaying bad manners. Lordach looked in at the door. Aglora told him her plan regarding Torin.

"He might as well stay with me, then," said Lordach. "Atina won't mind. I've already told her about him. Come along, boy." He held out a hand. Torin put his into the man's and walked beside him.

"Could I come back sometimes, and see if Osgoode's all right?" he asked timidly.

Lordach looked down at him in surprise. "You want to come back here?"

"Yes, please. I just want to be sure, that's all."

Lordach nodded to himself. "It has been a long, long time since there has been close friendships between your people and ours, boy. Yes, I think it's a fine idea. We'll work it out tomorrow." He ushered Torin into a small, comfortable cottage. "Atina! We have company!"


When Lordach had taken Torin away, Aglora turned to the anxious she-wolf, Aine. "Let me carry Osgoode home for you," she said. "I am going to ask Kieran to run to Oakwood to tell the boy's family where he is. We don't want his mother worrying as you have been."

Aine wuffed softly in agreement. Aglora smiled and took the cub from the Healer. She tucked him securely under her arm and led the way outside. She and Aine walked down the street to the house where Kieran, the brewmaster, lived. As they drew closer, the front door opened and Kieran himself hurried out.

"I just heard!" he said, reaching for Osgoode. "Padrig came to the brewery. Is Osgoode all right? What happened?" He took the little cub, who licked his face, whining and grumbling.

"Invite me in, and I will tell you, Kieran," said Aglora with a smile. Aine rowfed, backing up Aglora's words.

Kieran opened the door and they went inside. While he examined the cub, Aine settled herself in a large basket which was lined with a bearskin. She whimpered at Kieran. He looked over at her, then smiled sheepishly.

"I'm sorry, dearest," he said. He kissed Osgoode's forehead. "He must be famished." He set the cub with Aine and caressed them both with loving hands. Then he looked up at Aglora. "You were going to tell me?" he asked.

"Wherever he took himself to, he got his leg caught in a rabbit snare," she said. Kieran frowned. "He owes his life to a Dweller boy." Kieran's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Yes, I was just as surprised," said Aglora. "However, I doubt we would have found him in time and the Dweller boy brought him home."

She told Kieran the tale of Torin's adventure. When she had finished, Kieran stared at her. "I would not have imagined such a thing," he said. "They generally leave wolves alone, I grant you that, but they seldom go out of their way to help like that. I want to meet this boy."

"And so you shall," said Aglora. "But first I want you to run to Oakwood and tell this Torin's parents where he is and that he is safe. No sense in them worrying as you and Aine were."

Kieran nodded. "I will leave immediately," he said. He took down a backpack with odd straps from a peg on the wall. Aglora waited while he undressed, folding his clothes and putting them and his boots in the pack. He put the pack on his back, the strap around the neck much too loose, the one around his waist much too tight.

"If you would get the door, Elder," he said. "I will be on my way."

Aglora smiled and opened the door. Kieran bent forward, his hands reaching down toward the floor. Aglora watched as his body rippled and shimmered. An instant later, a large brown wolf with a pack fitting snugly on his back, trotted out the door and down the street, headed for Oakwood.

The Elder looked over at the cub, snuggled warmly against his mother's side. "I will leave you to tend that young mischief-maker, Aine," she said, smiling. "I am relieved he is home safe." Aine lifted her head for a moment, then turned back to Osgoode. She nipped his neck to chastise him for running off. He yelped, licked her face and fell asleep.

Kieran ran through the great wood toward the Forest Dweller village.

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