Endling #1: The Last
Long before I heard the word, I was used to being last.
I was the runt, the youngest and by-far-and-away smallest of my seven siblings, which meant I was the last to drink, the last to eat, the last to be protected.
As the lowest-ranking member of our dwindling pack, I accepted my place without resentment—much resentment, anyway.
It was, perhaps, only fair. My failings were many, or so I was often told.
I was too young to be clever, too small to be helpful.
My feet were large and clumsy. They tangled when I ran.
My coat was untidy, my manners dreadful. I once ate an entire leg of anteleer before my rightful turn.
I was curious to a fault. I wandered too far and wondered too often.
I was, in short, a disappointment at my only task in life, which was to do my best, like all dairnes, to stay quietly alive.
Those days, you’d have been as likely to pet a unicorn as you would to sight a dairne.
Our packelder, Dalyntor, white muzzled and frail, liked to speak of a time when our ancestors roamed in great bands, hundreds of dairnes at a time, across the Nedarran plains. At night they would form into family groups, gathering around to prepare wild grasses and berries, or perhaps cook the stray badger or cotchet.
But all that was long ago. Now there were just a few of us left in our part of the world, a single band of four families cowering together, meek as mouselings.
Hiding from humans, those most unpredictable of predators.
Hiding from the sun itself.
Some said there were more dairnes far away, living in mountain caves or on distant islands. Some said those sightings were the result of misguided hope. Dairnes were often mistaken for dogs. We share many physical similarities.
Dogs, however, lack opposable thumbs. They can’t walk upright. They aren’t able to glide from tree to tree. They can’t speak to humans.
And dogs aren’t—forgive me—the sharpest claws in the hunt, if you catch my meaning.
In any case, whether there were more of us or not, Dalyntor feared we would all be gone soon, slaughtered for our warm and silky fur.
Like the Carlisian seal, hunted by humans to extinction.
Or the red marlot, devastated by disease.
Or the blue-tufted ziguin, wiped out when its territory was destroyed in the Long-Ago War.
It seemed there were many ways to leave the world forever.
We didn’t want to believe our days were numbered. But here is what we did know: once we’d been many, and now we were few.
My parents feared I would be the first among us to die when trouble came, and trouble, they knew, was fast approaching.
I was small. And sometimes disappointing.
But I knew I could be brave as well. I was not afraid to be the first to die.
I just did not want to be the last to live.
I did not want to be the endling.
A Visit from Some Butterbats
The end began not so long ago, the day some butterbats came to visit.
It was early afternoon when I first heard them. I tiptoed past my sleeping family, nestled together like one great animal.
Dairnes are not night creatures by nature, but we no longer ventured out until the sun was long gone. We feared the giant cats called felivets, who hunted at night. But we feared poachers and the soldiers of the Murdano, Nedarra’s ruler, even more.
Still, I was restless. And I was sure I’d heard something just outside the door: the air, moving beneath wings both delicate and powerful.
My sister Lirya yawned and opened one eye. “I’m so hungry I could eat you, Byx,” she murmured.
“She’s too scrawny to eat,” said my oldest brother, Avar.
I ignored their teasing. I was used to ignoring my siblings.
It took some effort, squeezing through the door of our latest temporary home. An abandoned mirabear hive, it resembled a huge wasp nest that had fallen to earth. It was shaped like a honeycomb, with holes the size of large boulders, and glistened in the light like raw honey, though it was rock-hard to the touch. My father said the hive was made of volcanic ash, sulfur, and sand, mixed with sap from a bulla tree.
Dairnes used to fashion circle camps on the plains, or weave tree nests when we moved through forests. We didn’t do that anymore.
There were many things we didn’t do anymore. Or so Dalyntor, our teacher, the holder of our history, told us. He hinted at much more, but there were parts of the dairne story too harsh for our young ears.
Tree nests were too easy to spot, too vulnerable to arrows. Instead we moved from place to place, sheltering in caves or deep gullies, or within bramble patches in the heart of the forest. We left no evidence of our passing, no hint of nests or camps. We slept at the bases of cliffs, on remote beaches, in the deserted homes of other creatures. Our little band once spent the night in a large abandoned hunter’s lodge.
That was the closest I had ever come to humans, one of the six great governing species. Those six—humans, dairnes, felivets, natites, terramants, and raptidons—had once been considered the most powerful in our land. But now all of them—even the humans—were controlled by the despotic Murdano.
I’d only encountered two of the other great governing species. I’d scented felivets, huge, graceful felines, gliding through blackest night. (No one ever hears them.) And I’d seen raptidons, lords of the air, carving arcs through the clouds.
Never, though, had I glimpsed a natite.
Never (thankfully) a terramant swarm.
And never a human.
Still, I knew more than a few things about humans. Dalyntor had taught us pups about them, drawing stick figures on a dried playa leaf. From him, I learned that humans have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth filled with blunt teeth. I learned they stand taller than we dairnes, but not by too much. I learned a great deal about their habits, their clothing, their villages and cities, their culture, their weapons, their languages, how they measure time and distance.
And I learned, most importantly, that humans were never to be trusted, and always to be feared.
I emerged from the mirabear hive into slanting sunlight.
The sound grew nearer, and then I saw them above the hive.
There were four of them, easily three tails wide and almost as long, with shimmery wings that wove rainbows out of the tree-filtered light. They must have thought there were still mirabears there, butterbats being great lovers of honey—and great thieves besides.
Despite the stiff breeze, they had no trouble hovering silently overhead like huge hummingbirds.
“Byx.” The voice was soft, part concern, part scold. I turned to see that my mother had joined me. She looked weary, her dark gold fur mussed, her tail listless.
“Butterbats, Maia!” I whispered.
She followed my gaze. “So beautiful. They’re heading north, I expect. It’s migration time for them.”
“I wish I could go, too.”
“I know it’s hard sometimes, this life.” She stroked my back. “Especially for you little ones.”
“I’m not little.”
My mother nudged me with her nose. “Not so little anymore. True enough.”
I sighed, leaning into her. She was as warm and safe as a patch of sun.
“I’m bored, Maia. I want to have fun. I want to chase my tail. I want to learn new things. I want to go on adventures and be brave.”
“No need to rush toward bravery,” she said softly. “No rush at all.”
“The big ones call me runt. And whelp,” I moaned. “They say I ask too many questions.” I was rather enjoying feeling so sorry for myself. “I hate being me.”
“Byx,” my mother said, “don’t ever say that. There’s only one you in the whole wide world. And I love that you ask so many questions. That’s how we learn.” She paused. “I’ll tell you something. Something none of the other pups know yet.”
My ears flicked to alert.
“The adults had a meeting last night. We’ll be leaving here at sundown. Heading north, just like the butterbats. Myxo will be leading us. She said we’ve searched in the southlands long enough.”
Myxo was our pathfinder. She had the keenest nose and the best instincts of anyone in our pack, and she’d traveled far and wide looking for more dairnes. Still, though we’d heard rumors of dairne sightings, nothing ever came of them. Our pack was down to twenty-nine members.
“This is a big move,” my mother said. “A sort of migration of our own. We’re going to search for the First Colony.”
“But Dalyntor taught us they’re long gone.” I remembered our lessons about the First Colony, the original group of dairnes who migrated to Nedarra long ago. We’d had to memorize a poem—an extremely long poem—about them.
I love learning more than anyone in my family. But even I have to admit it may have been the most boring poem ever spoken:
Sing, poet, of the Ancients who dared forth—
Brave dairnes, o’er mountains treacherous and cruel,
Who crossed the frigid waters of the north
To Dairneholme, living isle and floating jewel.
That’s all I recall. If Dalyntor hadn’t let us draw maps while he recited it, I would have fallen fast asleep. Most of the other pups did.
“Maia?” I asked. “Do you really think there might still be a colony in the north?”
My mother looked across the meadow to the dark, wind-fretted forest, but didn’t answer. “It’s not impossible,” she said at last.
Dairnes do not lie. There would be no point, since we can always detect an untruth, not just from our own kind, but from anyone.
No other species has this ability. Dalyntor often called it “our burdensome gift,” although I didn’t understand what he meant by that.
Nonetheless, although dairnes don’t lie, we do sometimes . . . hope.
“But you don’t think so?” I pressed, although I could already tell her answer.
“No, my love.” It was almost a whisper. “But perhaps I’m wrong.”
“I’m sure you’re wrong. I’ll bet we’ll find hundreds of dairnes. Thousands, even!” I stopped myself. “It’s not wrong to hope, is it?”
“It’s never wrong to hope, Byx,” said my mother. “Unless the truth says otherwise.” She gave me another nose nudge. “Now, it’s back to bed for you. We have a long night’s walk ahead of us.”
The butterbats still circled, dipping and twirling just beyond reach. “A few more minutes, Maia,” I pleaded. “They’re so pretty.”
“Not too long,” she said, “and no exploring.” She turned, then hesitated. “I love you, my pup. Don’t ever forget that.”
“I love you, too, Maia.”
A long time passed before the butterbats moved on. Maybe they were amazed to have happened upon some dairnes. Or maybe they were simply enjoying the waves of warm air rising from the sun-touched hive.
As I turned back toward the entrance, something strange, something I couldn’t quite place, caught my attention.
Not a sound, exactly, or a scent.
More like a hunch.
I took a few steps toward the small meadow separating me from a dark line of trees. Beyond it stretched the sea.
I consulted the scents on the whipping wind. The air was heavy with stories.
Was that treefox I smelled? Brindalet? It was hard to pin things down in the zigzag wind.
The forest called to me, silent but compelling, willing me to approach. Golden ribbons of light threaded through the trees. I’d never been there in daylight, only in the dead of night.
No, I told myself. We were forbidden to leave the pack, especially during the day, and most especially without permission.
And I didn’t leave—not much, anyway.
I’d ventured to a stream fizzing with green bubbles. I’d sought the company of a friendly zebra squirrel and her babies. Yesterday I’d visited a cluster of star flowers, scented like sage and sea. It was a lovely spot for tail chasing.
I never took big risks. Never went far. But how could I possibly learn about the world if I never got to see it?
I knew I shouldn’t go. But before we moved on, before we trekked to the next dark place, wouldn’t it be wonderful to view the sea, just once, in daylight? I had only ever seen it by starlight.
My mother was back in our nest. I checked the freshening breeze: no danger.
Only a few minutes to cross the meadow, dropping onto all fours to run. Only a few minutes more to pass through that intimidating but enticing wall of trees.
Just a moment, I told myself. Just a glimpse of the sun, dancing on water.
A moment or two, and then I’d return, having never been missed.
I emerged from the towering wood onto a winding pathway. The trees kept their distance from the cliff’s edge, as if they were leery of heights.
The grass was dry and warm, almost brittle. It was nothing like the feel of night grass, cool and damp with dew.
I came upon the remains of an ancient building, squat and crumbled. A watchtower, probably. Dalyntor had taught us a bit about human dwellings. Some were remarkable, he said. And some were remarkably ugly.
I clambered over great, rough-hewn stones that formed a crude stairway. At the top I stood in an ivy-laced gap that was no doubt once used by archers.
And there it was: the sea.
It was nothing like I’d imagined.
This was not a placid, rippling lake. Not a busy, musical stream. The sea reached forever, as humbling and endless as the sky. An army of waves marched toward the shore, crashing violently in plumes of white spray. Black rocks veined with silver, the ones I’d heard called “Sharks’ Teeth,” pierced the water’s edge like glistening swords.
The rush and rumble of the surf was deafening. I felt as if I were drowning in smells, rich and mysterious.
The breeze stiffened. My ears lay flat and my eyes stung. I looked to the sky and saw an advancing wall of iron-gray clouds. A storm was coming.
To my right a cliff curved in a great arc, nothing but jagged stone besieged by relentless waves. To my left the arc ended in a jutting finger of rock. At the very edge of that sloping peninsula stood a gnarled, leafless tree.
Only then did I spot the rowboat and its lone occupant.
It wasn’t much to look at, more toy than boat, bobbing on the gray-green swells. Each surge brought it nearer to the cliffs. If it hit—when it hit—it would be smashed to kindling instantly.
I had to squint to be sure there was a creature in the boat. I wished I could smell the animal, scent being so much more precise than sight, at least for us. But when I tried to unbraid the air, all I smelled was the complicated sea.
Nonetheless, there was something down there in that rowboat. Something small and brown, pointlessly attempting to paddle.
Was that . . . ? I was almost certain: it was a wobbyk!
“What can a wobbyk possibly be doing in a rowboat?” I asked of no one.
The noise of pounding surf was huge, but I thought I might have heard a faint but desperate cry for help.
Which made sense. Because, though I couldn’t quite make out the occupant of the tiny craft, one thing was clear: whether wobbyk or some other creature, whoever was in that boat was doomed.
A Plea for Help
As I watched, a menacing claw of water lifted the boat high. It hurled the tiny craft and its tinier occupant toward the looming cliff.
I held my breath. I didn’t want to watch. I didn’t want to know. Death was seconds away.
To my shock, the same sea that had propelled the boat forward showed temporary mercy, drawing the rowboat back and away.
But it wasn’t far enough. The respite would be brief. Another surge or two, three at most, and the wobbyk—I was convinced that was what he must be—would die.
Once, when I was very young, my mother made us a dinner of wobbyk. We’d been living on grass and grubs for far too long, and it was the first meat we’d had in ages. If we hadn’t been so hungry, I doubt it would have tasted as good as it did, but even now the memory makes my mouth water.
Still, despite the fact that wobbyk can make an unsatisfying but healthy addition to a dull diet, I wasn’t thinking about eating him. I didn’t wish his death. (Truth be told, I was a feeble and softhearted hunter. In fact, I’d never actually killed anything, except a few bugs.) Instead I was amazed to find that part of my brain was already busily considering a rescue, analyzing angles, rates of descent, and the probable weight of the little creature.
Even as I was calculating, the wobbyk looked up at me, desperate, his mouth open and moving.
I heard a faint “Help!” Or maybe I only imagined the sound, but there was no imagination needed to see the fear, the frantically waving paws.
“I can’t,” I said, and my words flew back at me like windblown leaves.
I could use my glissaires, the thin extensions of our coats that we use for brief glides. Maybe, with incredibly lucky timing, I could actually manage to snatch the wobbyk.
But short of a miracle, I’d never be able to carry him.
Not far, anyway. Just a few yards. Just enough to . . .
The ocean sucked back, uncovering a narrow strip of sand in a cleft between rocks.
No, the timing would be impossible.
The wobbyk looked at me, speaking unheard words. He was begging for life.
My father had a saying: “To rush is not necessarily to arrive.” He said it to me often. He meant: think first.
And so I did.
On the one hand, I would probably die.
On the other hand, what a great story to tell around the fire. How impressed my siblings would be!
On the one foot—but I stopped myself there.
I’d been so absorbed in the wobbyk’s peril that it took me a moment to register the too-sweet smell of domesticated dogs, followed by the unmistakable stench of horses.
A third smell hit me, new and unfamiliar.
Unfamiliar, but not unknowable.
Only one species traveled with horses and dogs as company.
A drumbeat of hooves vibrated the pads of my feet. I turned toward the trees and saw startled birds flap skyward.
How could I have missed such obvious scents? The damp forest, the frantic wind, the distraction of the drowning wobbyk?
I heard a warning call, the piercing howl we use that signals danger.
Strange: it hadn’t come from a dairne. The pitch was wrong. Was that a human sound?
The dense trees ripped open like a clawed hide. Horses emerged behind me. And atop those horses were what could only be humans.
The men were imposing, their limbs thicker than I’d expected, their shouts more terrifying.
Could they be the Murdano’s soldiers?
I flashed on the rhyme Dalyntor had taught us: “If you encounter silver and red, run away, dairne, or end up dead!”
The clothing these humans wore was motley, a mix of dun and gray. Their weapons were mismatched. Two of their horses carried, instead of humans, roped stacks of furs and hides.
The same voice, the one that had signaled danger, was screaming, “No! No! Don’t kill it!”
The leader of the poachers, a great bow in his left hand, rode a towering black-and-white horse. Both man and beast stared at me with deadly intent.
With his right hand, the man plucked an arrow from his quiver. He fitted it to the string in less time than an eye can blink.
“No!” I cried.
My heart banged madly in my chest, all rhythm lost.
I watched in horror as the man’s muscles strained and the bowstring drew back.
His eyes saw nothing but me.
I saw nothing but the glittering arrowhead. The fingers that released. The string that snapped.
And then I leapt.
Dairnes cannot fly.
We can glide, but we can’t defy gravity. We can only soften it, turning plummeting falls into slow arcs.
I spread my forelegs, exposing my glissaires. With all four inches of my deadly back claws digging into crumbling stone, I kicked myself away, thrusting toward the boiling clouds.
Arrows sliced through the air like deadly rain.
I caught the wind.
The knife-sharp tip of a Shark’s Tooth grazed my tail, just as the blustery wind filled and lifted me.
Panting horses pranced and reared at the cliff’s rim. I saw furious human faces glaring down at me. Hard, experienced eyes planned trajectories.
An arrow shot past, faster than a diving raptidon. It flew so near that I could see the color of the feathers, the design painted on the shaft, the trident head. And the thin filament that would allow me to be hauled back.
A poacher’s arrow.
I let go the wind from my glissaires, gathering speed, and risked a midair cutback.
Far below me and almost as far ahead, the wobbyk stood in his boat, waving, mouth open, eyes wide.
The boat was rising on the biggest wave yet. I banked left, aiming at this moving target.
I felt the swift passage of time and distance as the boat smashed into a pillar of black rock, shattering the wood and splintering it.
The wobbyk screamed. This time I had no trouble hearing him.
He leapt upward. Not a great leap—wobbyks are stout little creatures—but enough.
I was gliding faster than I had ever done before. Between us an arrow shot past. I dodged beneath the filament as the wobbyk began to fall away.
I spilled more air and surged like lightning.
The wobbyk reached desperately.
“Here!” he cried.
I snatched one paw.
The effect of his weight was like hitting a wall. Dairnes cannot carry anything heavy in a glide.
I somersaulted through the air. I wobbled and plummeted. But momentum carried us forward as the sea retreated and there, there it was: the narrow, V-shaped patch of sand.
We plowed in a tangle through bubbling surf that grabbed at us both, tugging at our feet as though willing us to fall and be carried away into the depths.
But one foot somehow found a fragile grip on wet sand. Another foot, and to my amazement, I realized that I still had hold of the wobbyk’s paw, and he had hold of me.
I staggered and we fell into the surf. I sucked salt water into my lungs and coughed.
I wondered if I was going to die.
I wondered if my parents would be mad at me if I died.
The waves were quickly returning, gathering strength to crush us against the cliff face. The first fat drops of rain fell.
“Up!” I gasped. “Climb!”
Black rock lay before us, rock that in a second would be underwater, but we were all frantic claws, scrabbling, fighting for every handhold, slipping, banging elbows and knees.
I pushed the wobbyk up and away.
The wave crashed around me. I was helpless against its power. It lifted me, holding me as I paddled futilely, all sense of direction lost.
This was it.
This was how my life would end.
Foam covered me. Water filled my mouth and forced its way down my throat.
But then I felt it.
Something grabbing the fur at the back of my neck.
It was a tiny paw, a weak grip, and yet it was enough to buy me a moment more.
In the extra second I’d been given, I found a handhold and then a foothold. I windmilled hands and feet, panicked, indifferent to bruises and cuts, and my head came up and out of the water.
Air. Yes. Air.
I climbed. Just ahead of me the wobbyk climbed.
“Look out!” he yelled, and an arrow clattered against the rock, so close it parted the fur near my ear.
Seconds more, and all at once we were over the top of the rocky spur, falling down the far side where no arrow could touch us.
The poachers couldn’t reach us there, not without running their horses down the greensward and across a deep-cut channel.
A burst of lightning lit the sky. The black clouds ruptured, pelting us with icy rain.
I looked at the wobbyk. The wobbyk looked at me.
“Greetings,” said the wobbyk. “You’re so very kind to rescue me.” Wobbyks are known for being remarkably polite.
I was not feeling polite.
I was soaked, cold, trembling. And feeling far from safe.
I shook my head. I tried to focus.
The cliff. The poachers. The arrows.
My rattled brain replayed the details of my desperate dive. I had the feeling I would relive that scene many times in dreams, the kind that wake you up at night, gasping and sweating.
The downpour drenched us while lightning carved the clouds. Thunderclaps drowned out the sea’s roar.
I blinked away rain and stared at the wobbyk. He was small, perhaps a third of my size, and comical looking, especially in his waterlogged state. His silver-blue fur was bedraggled, as were his three tails. Huge white oval ears extended from his head like giant wings.
Everything else about him was round: round head; round, protruding stomach; round eyes, big and shiny as river plums. Even his paws—white, like his ears and muzzle—were round as lily pads. The lower half of his face reminded me of a fox, with its black nose, long whiskers, and upturned mouth that looked perpetually amused. He wore a leather belt low on his sizable belly. Attached to it was a small drawstring pouch.
“We have to hide,” the wobbyk said. “They may still come after us.”
With a sigh, I forced my body, leaden with the dulling effects of fear, upright. The wobbyk was correct. We had to keep moving.
We picked our way down the rocks onto a stretch of sandy beach.
“Walk in the surf,” I suggested. “It will cover our tracks.” We dairnes are experts at concealment.
“I wonder if I might . . . if I might inquire as to whether you have a plan?”
“My plan is to avoid arrows!”
The wobbyk fell silent, head drooping. I felt a bit guilty, so I added, “Let’s make for the shale ahead. Hopefully, our tracks won’t show quite as much there. We’ll climb where the cliff has collapsed and make our way through the forest. I have to get back to my family.”
“I don’t see anyone following us.”
“And I don’t smell them,” I replied, panting. “But this rain masks sounds and smells as well. We need to get out of here as quickly as we can.”
“My name is Tobble,” said the wobbyk. “I am most grateful to you. And I don’t wish to be a burden.”
“Too late,” I said, only half joking.
I reminded myself that the wobbyk hadn’t brought the poachers.
On the other hand, he certainly had tried to row a boat into a cliff.
“How, by all the Ancients, did you end up stuck in a rowboat?” I asked.
“I was taken prisoner by a pirate ship.”
I blinked. “Did you say—”
“Pirates,” the wobbyk confirmed.
“And how does a wobbyk end up with pirates?”
“The usual way.”
“The usual way?” I asked. “How can there possibly be a usual way to be captured by pirates?”
“If you’re fishing for sticklers and have a full coracle, well, pirates are certain to want your cargo,” Tobble said. He gave a little shrug. “Even pirates like grilled stickler.”
“Indeed! My brothers managed to leap off the coracle, but I was tangled in the net and they left me.” He didn’t seem upset by this fact but, seeing my disapproving frown, added, “I’m the youngest. My brothers often overlook me.”
There we had something in common.
Tobble studied me. He tilted his head so far to one side, it nearly touched his shoulder.
“Would it be impolite if I were to inquire as to what kind of animal you are? You look like a dog, but you walk upright and you can speak—”
“Dog?” I repeated. “Are you joking?”
“So what are you, then?”
“Hungry, for one thing. Cold, for another. And wet.”
“I, too, am hungry. I am also a wobbyk.”
“And I am a dairne. Of course.” I said it with all the pride I could muster.
Tobble warbled a high-pitched laugh. Even wobbyk laughs are comical. “Yes, and I’m a four-headed wood sprite.” He narrowed his eyes. “Wolf family? Perhaps. But your fur is golden, much finer than a wolf’s coat. Hmm. You can glide, like a flying squirrel. You have a pouch, like a marsupial. You have hands with thumbs, but doglike paws for feet. You stand erect, and you’re a female.”
“Thank you for stating the obvious.”
“There’s almost a human-ish quality to your demeanor.” Tobble circled me as we walked. “On the other hand, I just watched humans try to kill you.” Another head tilt. “Still and all, humans are well known for killing each other.”
“I’m a dairne,” I repeated firmly. “And you’re a wobbyk. And for the record, dairnes eat wobbyks.”
Tobble snorted. “There are no dairnes,” he said, as certainly as if he’d just stated that water is wet. Which was certainly proving to be true.
“And yet here I stand before you, wet and cold and hungry. I’ll admit there aren’t as many of us as there used to be. But I can assure you that I know what I am.”
We scrambled up the fallen cliff face and plunged at last into the shadow of the trees. The rain still fell, but the canopy of branches overhead kept most of it from hitting us.
“I just don’t understand,” Tobble continued. “Dairnes are . . . no more.” His voice was low, as if he were telling me a scary bedtime tale. “My father said so. My grandfather. My great-grandfather. You’re, if you’ll excuse the word—I realize it’s a bit harsh—you’re extinct.”
I stopped moving and stood as tall as I could manage. At full height, I towered over the little wobbyk. “Now I’m certain I’m going to eat you.”
“You saved my life. You can’t eat me.”
“Setting aside the fact that I don’t exist and so cannot be held to any rule, why is that?” My own whisper was too loud, and I reminded myself to be quiet.
“It’s just not done. It’s impolite.” Tobble twisted his head around, raised one of his tails, and licked it. “So who was that trying to kill you?”
“Poachers,” I said. “You’re changing the subject.”
“And now I shall thank you for stating the obvious.” Tobble smiled. “Poachers don’t bother wobbyks much.”
“Probably because you taste like turtle.”
“I don’t know whether to be insulted or relieved.”
“They kill us for our fur,” I said.
“May I?” Tobble asked, pointing to my arm. When I shrugged, he timidly patted my shoulder. “Even damp,” he marveled, “you are remarkably soft.”
I shrugged. “My father says the whole world is trying to kill dairnes these days.”
A branch snapped, and Tobble grabbed my arm.
We froze in place.
I studied the air with my nose. Tobble’s left ear swiveled like the head of a skittish owl.
“There!” He pointed. “They’re waiting for us!”
I motioned for the wobbyk to stay low—unnecessary, given that a wobbyk standing on tiptoes is still shorter than a dairne creeping on all fours. Leading the way, tree trunk to tree trunk, I calculated each step for silence.
The scents of human and horse and dog grew stronger. I strained my ears but heard nothing but my thudding heart.
It was the dogs I feared. The nose of a dog is almost as talented as a dairne’s. But the breeze was my friend, blowing them to me and concealing us. One human was nearer, I was sure of it. The others were farther back with the horses.
With movements so slow and cautious that I doubted any predator, human or otherwise, could detect them, I pushed aside the brambles of a billerberry bush.
And there he was.
He stood alone near a fallen log in a small clearing, intense concentration on his face. Slender and tall, he was dressed in simple peasant clothes: a faded brown shirt beneath a leather jerkin, fastened with a belt, woolen trousers, and tall buff leather boots.
I knew almost nothing about human emotions, and yet I sensed, somehow, that this one was anxious.
No, more than that: he was angry.
“Did ya ever catch sight of it again, guide?” It was not the slender boy but a yell from deeper in the forest.
“No, master,” the boy called back. “Drownt in the sea, most likely.”
I heard the faint sound of horses stamping their hooves impatiently. Nearby I heard two sets of feet—human, I thought—plodding through the underbrush.
Two bearded men came into view on either side of the boy. One was short and heavyset. The other, tall and gaunt, I recognized as the leader of the poachers. They were dressed in cast-off bits of armor over leather jerkins. Each had a sword, a bow, and two knives.
“What was it, d’ya think?” asked the leader.
“Thought it was a wolf, or a dog, maybe,” said the other. “But the way it practically flew right off that cliff? I’m thinkin’ it had to be a dairne.”
“Never seen a dairne in my life. Never met a soul who’s seen one.” The leader leaned against a thick pine tree, arms crossed. “Boy, what d’ya think it was?”
“I’m not sure,” the guide answered. “S’pose we’ll never know.”
“They say dairne fur’s the softest and warmest in the world. One pelt’d feed us all for a year, and then some,” said the short man.
“True,” said the guide, “but I daresay a dairne would fetch far more alive, rare as they are.”
“Cursed creatures.” The short man spit. “My grandfather saw two back when he was a boy. Claimed their noses were bewitched. They can smell a fart a hundred furlongs off.”
The leader grunted a laugh. “Here’s hopin’ where there’s one dairne, there’s more.”
“If we do catch sight of one,” said the boy, “please don’t kill it.” He paused when the leader sent him a dark look. “I just mean to say it’ll be more coin in our pockets if we can capture it.”
“Worth plenty dead, and quicker by half,” the leader grumbled. “Speakin’ o’ which, I ever hear you scream, ‘Don’t kill it!’ in the middle of a hunt again, and it’ll be your pelt we’re takin’ to market.”
The boy looked at the ground. “Yes, master.”
“Where to, then, boy,” asked the leader, “seein’ as you’re so clever?”
The guide turned, then stood still as stone, staring into the trees.
He was looking in our direction. Despite the thick cover of the billerberry bush, I sensed that he saw us.
The men fell silent.
The guide closed his eyes.
“He’s catchin’ the trackin’ spell again,” the first man said.
“Then shut your gob and let him at it.”
The guide’s eyes opened. In spite of the distance between us, I could see that they were deep brown, heavy lidded and thoughtful.
“Head north,” he called to the men. “I’ll grab my mount and catch up with you.”
The older men moved away. The boy waited in silence, taking in the scene. Then he, too, departed.
But before he disappeared into the trees, he stopped and glanced back toward us, and I thought, though I could not be sure, that he was smiling.
Three Tails, Three Saves
As soon as the danger had passed, my stomach began to whine, as if it had been waiting to complain until things were safe.
Tobble startled. “What was that?”
“My stomach. I’m hungry.”
“My stomach growls when it’s hungry.”
“Ours whine.” I stood carefully, nosing the air for any sign that the poachers hadn’t actually left. “That guide,” I said. “I feel certain he saw us.”
“But why wouldn’t he have said something?”
“I don’t know.” I shook my head. “It makes no sense.”
I realized at that moment that I was utterly exhausted. The mad leap off the cliff, the impossible glide, the salt water followed by rain, the cold, the fear: I just wanted to be home, safe in the huddle of my sleeping family.
I’d been curious enough for one day.
I looked at Tobble and wondered what to do with him. I didn’t know much about hunting. But I had the feeling you weren’t supposed to converse with your prey.
Tobble seemed to sense what I was thinking. “You do realize you cannot eat me until I return the favor of saving your life?”
Despite myself I smiled. “You’re going to save my life?”
“What I lack in stature I make up for in spirit.” Tobble dusted wet dirt off his rear end. “Besides, it’s Wobbyk Code. You saved my life; I must save yours three times.”
“Because that’s the rule.”
“But why is that the rule?”
“Because I have three tails.”
I frowned. “But that doesn’t make any sense.”
“I don’t make the rules. But I do obey them.”
A noise like thunder rumbled again in the distance. We both flinched, worried the noise might now signal returning hooves rather than angry sky.
“There’s no need to thank me,” I said. Especially, I added silently, since under different circumstances I might well be feasting on you for dinner.
“So. Where to?” asked Tobble.
“You’re not coming with me. My pack has been living on worms and bark for weeks. They’ll eat you in a flash.”
“That’s a risk I’ll simply have to take.”
“You may not come,” I said firmly, surprising myself with the voice my parents so often used on me.
“And yet I shall.”
I decided to try logic. “You’ll slow me down. And you’ll make too much noise.”
“If you think I’ll make noise on the ground, then let me ride on your back. I’m too big for your pouch.” Tobble jutted out his fuzzy chin. “Three times,” he said. “Wobbyk Code. You couldn’t get rid of me if you tried.”
“I could if I ate you,” I muttered, trying to sound intimidating.
Before I could say another word, Tobble climbed up onto my back. “I do hope you don’t mind,” he said.
“That there’s a furry meal hugging my neck?” I asked. “As it happens, I do mind.”
“It seems I’ve neglected to ask your name,” Tobble said, ignoring me.
I sighed. Loudly and with feeling. “It’s Byx.”
“Byx,” he repeated. “A fine name indeed for a fine dairne.” He leaned close to my ear and whispered, “If that’s really what you are.”
I twisted my head and sent him a grimace. “Just a jest,” he said with a wide grin. “Don’t mind me.”
“That may prove difficult.”
Circling back meant a longer return trip, but I wanted to be very sure I didn’t accidentally lead the poachers to the mirabear hive.
The sky was covered with clouds and the sunset wasn’t far off. I went east, then north, then at last turned in a straight line toward my temporary home and my permanent family.
Tobble didn’t weigh much, but the question of what I was going to do with him once I got to the hive definitely weighed on my mind. At least he’d provide a distraction from the bigger question of why I’d strayed so far.
In any case, even hungry dairnes are civilized. If I claimed Tobble was a friend, I doubted anyone in the pack would try to eat him. They would, however, want to know why I’d befriended a potential meal.
I tried one more time. “You truly should hop off and be on your way,” I told Tobble.
“I understand your concern.” He ducked his head as I raced through stinging brambles. “But I can fend for myself.”
“With what?” I half hoped he had some unrevealed power.
“With my derring-do,” Tobble said confidently. “Let me just say this: You do not want to see me mad. I am a terrible sight to behold.”
“I’ll remember that,” I said, trying not to smile.
“So where are we headed? Your home?”
“Yes. No. We don’t really have homes,” I said. “We move from place to place. Never too long in one spot.”
“I thought you nested in trees. That’s what I always heard.”
“We used to. Not anymore. My parents taught us how to make nests, though. It takes a lot of practice. We weave silk from orb webs, bog reeds, and willow branches, and line the nests with moss and thistledown.”
“I’m impressed. Of course, it probably helps that you dairnes have thumbs.”
“They’re quite useful.” I wiggled them in the air.
“Show-off,” said Tobble. “I’ll bet you can’t do this.”
I turned my head to see his huge ears spinning like tiny cyclones, twisting and untwisting.
“Intriguing,” I said. “What purpose does that serve?”
“None whatsoever,” Tobble said with a grin.
After a few more minutes I stopped, checking for anything new. I had an odd sense that something wasn’t right, although the wind brought me no useful news. I smelled pine sap and mold. Willowweed and ginger flowers. I heard a crimson owl fussing with her nest in the crook of a spruce.
“Do you hear anything?” I asked.
“Nope,” Tobble said. “And with my ears, I hear everything.”
I concentrated again. Nothing. Nothing I could name, anyway. Of course, that feeling often hit me when I’d made an unwise choice. Only afterward did the risk of what I’d done fully register.
My explorations had, for the most part, been careful. Timid, even. But today I’d gone too far. I was not looking forward to explaining myself to my parents. Still, I wanted to get home as quickly as I could. I’d made a big mistake, a very big one. I wanted to avoid any more.
“We live underground,” Tobble volunteered, perhaps trying to distract me from my worries. “In amazing tunnels. They go on for leagues. I have my very own room. It’s gigantic. And luxurious.”
“That’s nice,” I said as I started walking again, even faster than before.
“I share it with my brothers Blaxton, Roopwart, and Piddlecombe.”
“And McGuppers, Jellyhorn, and Bribbles.” Tobble paused. “So it’s not exactly only my room.”
Again I stopped. Something was wrong. Something in the air.
My fur stood on end. My nose tingled.
I shivered, even though I was no longer cold.
I’d been dawdling, indulging my own weariness.
“Hold on,” I said to Tobble.
I dropped to all fours and took off at a gallop.
I raced through the trees, then across a stretch of exposed rock dotted with tiny purple flowers. Twice I stumbled, but Tobble hung on, his little arms tight around my neck.
“Keep a sharp lookout,” I said, panting.
“I shall, Byx,” Tobble replied with worrying seriousness, and we both fell silent.
The clouds were breaking up overhead, driven inland by the wind. The sky, revealed in patches, had taken on an angry glow as day eased into night.
I was heading back to the mirabear hive from a different angle, but it didn’t matter. I needed no signposts. I moved on instinct, nose set for home, home, home.
I leapt over a small stream and stopped cold.
“What is it?” Tobble asked.
I didn’t move. I froze the way my parents had taught me and took everything in. To rush is not necessarily to arrive.
Ahead of me, I caught the scent of humans. The guide, perhaps? The horses, the dogs, the rest were farther away.
A two-minute run at full pace, home awaited.
“Something’s wrong,” I said, shaking my head as if arguing with myself.
“What is it?”
“Shhh.” I listened, and so did Tobble.
They weren’t there yet, the noises I was searching for. Wasn’t I near enough to hear the movements of my fellow dairnes? They’d be packing up. They’d be looking for me. Were the trees so thick they muffled sound?
We were about to set out on a huge journey. Preparations should have been underway. Food had to be wrapped in poonan leaves, tools had to be put away, the few mementos we carried had to be slipped into pouches.
What I heard was not a sound. It was an absence of sound. A void.
I tried to pin down a fleeting scent. It was almost nothing, almost impossible for me to make out. The wind didn’t serve me well, but from the dark recesses of my mind, an ancient emotion grew.
I sat on my haunches and Tobble slid off.
“I have to go,” I said, and by the time Tobble began to answer, I was already on my way.
I ran, tripping over a fallen branch, slipping on leaves.
I wove. I darted. I plowed through the undergrowth, heedless, eyes half closed to avoid the whipping branches.
Again I stopped.
Lost. I was lost.
Frantically I panted, hating my short legs and weak lungs that never, ever allowed me the pleasure of being the first or the fastest.
The treacherous breeze shifted and it hit me.
A smell so thick and horrible that it crawled down my throat like lava.
I knew before I knew.
“No,” I whispered.
The world was silent, except for Tobble, far behind but gamely trying to catch up.
I saw a hill that I recognized because of the huge, lonely pine that stood atop it. The camp was just over the hill.
I panted and gasped, climbing up and up, and there at the summit where the mass of earth no longer stifled sound, the silence was gone.
Howls and screams.
Pain beyond words.
Terror and despair.
It took forever. And yet it came too quickly, the moment when I was sure.
Careening through the trees, I saw the humans in silver and red with their arrows and their broadswords, their drooling dogs and panting horses.
They were mayhem. They were blood. They were darkness.
Not poachers. These men were something else. They didn’t wear motley clothing, they didn’t wield mismatched weapons. They wore identical red-and-silver tunics, revealing arms covered in chain mail. Their heads were protected by conical steel helmets cut with a narrow slit for their eyes. Their boots glittered with spurs. Some men had swords. Others clutched spears.
These were not poachers. These were the Murdano’s soldiers.
The mirabear hive, thirty feet high and twice as long, was golden and slick from the rain. Fires raged inside. Black smoke billowed from every opening.
One of the soldiers leapt off his horse and poked at a mound of fur with his spear.
It was Dalyntor, the elder of our pack. White muzzled, but wise in the ways of humans.
Not wise enough.
And then I saw them.
All of them.
They were piled on the ground like discarded hides, blood pouring, white and pearly, soaking the leaves, eyes glassy and open, mouths open. Torn and stabbed.
They lay in a mound, as if they’d been too late to scatter, my parents on top, protecting as always.
I ran to maim, to kill, to exact revenge, growling from some primitive place inside me that I didn’t know existed.
I was almost in the open when something struck me hard in the side. It yanked me onto my back, legs tangled.
I stared in disbelief at the trident arrowhead buried in my right side. The filament attached to it, nearly invisible but capable of restraining a charging vulf stag, was taut.
I tried to pull out the arrow, but the points were barbed. It wasn’t a killing arrow. It was an arrow meant for capture.
I grabbed the filament and tried to break it with my teeth. I raged and kicked.
From behind a tree I heard a voice. “Be still, you fool!”
I would not be still. I would not be stopped. I would go to my mother, my father. I would go to my brothers and sisters, my pack, my—
I heard a rush of feet, twisted too late, and felt a blow on the back of my neck.
But I felt it for only a second, maybe two, before I was lost in swirling darkness.
In my mind I was moving, but I could not move.
I could see.
I could smell.
I could hear.
But I could not move. I was restrained, held in place.
I was hanging, stomach down, over a saddleless horse. I rocked forward and back as the beast navigated a stony path. Somehow I didn’t slip off. Was I tied to him, as well as bound hand and foot?
My face bounced against the horse’s side. The stink of him—sweat and dung and weariness—was suffocating.
I was a carcass, dangling like a dead mouse in the jaws of a woodcat.
What was happening? My thoughts came slow and thick as mud.
My head lolled and snapped with each jerky step. When I strained to raise my head, I saw pine and bulla tree branches low to the ground, their tangy needles scratching the horse’s legs.
I realized with a shock that we were in sunlight. Evening and night had come and gone. Had I been unconscious that long?
I saw hard-packed dirt and sharp-edged rocks.
I saw dappled gold and black horsehair rippling over ribs.
I saw a pair of legs, cloth-covered, feet bound in leather, striding surely, just ahead. A boy. I remembered him, at least I thought I did.
The boy. The poachers’ guide.
Memories assaulted me. Poachers and arrows. Water and terror. A strange little wobbyk.
And something else . . . something terrible. So terrible my mind shut down.
The guide murmured softly and the horse halted.
With his hand on my shoulder, the guide steadied me. He lifted me up a little in order to see my face.
High above me, light stabbed through the thick overhang of branches. I felt it on my back. I saw the short noon shadows it cast.
I twisted my throbbing head and saw the rope holding me in place, the fat knot. I turned my head the other way and saw the horse’s ears twitching. His mane was a tangle of shimmering gold and black.
The guide put a waterskin to my mouth. Just a bit to wet my lips, but I couldn’t swallow well at that angle. Gently he wiped away the drops slipping down my cheek. Cupping his hand, he poured water into it, and I lapped like a dog. I was desperately thirsty.
“If you’re awake, we need to get that arrowhead out of your side,” he said.
He spoke the Common Tongue, the speech of traders and travelers. It’s a mixture of words and phrases from a dozen different languages. Dalyntor had taught us pups how to speak it fluently, though among pack members, we spoke only Dairnish.
“The poison has worn off, and I suppose the numbing effect as well.”
He was right. I felt the barbed tines, sharply cold, and a dull ache. The impact had bruised me as well as penetrated my flesh.
The guide jerked his head right, left. He was taking in the threats, listening intently. Sniffing the wind with his feeble human nose.
He lifted me, grunting at my weight, and set me down against a mossy hillock in the shade of a generous elm. I dared to look down at my side. The arrow’s shaft had been cut away, leaving only a few inches. Blood, once glistening pearl, was now crusting brown.
I looked at the guide, trying to search his eyes, to understand. I racked my fuzzy memory for all I knew of humans, all I had heard in poems, in lessons, from my—
It came at me like a boulder down a mountain, and I could not flee the knowledge.
My mother. My father. My brothers and sisters.
I remembered the rest.
The burning mirabear hive.
The soldiers and their spears.
I remembered it all.
I closed my eyes and heard the screams. I smelled brackish blood, steel and iron, sword and armor.
I saw a spear poking at the dead bodies, the pitiful dead piles of fur.
A terrible rage grew within me.
I wanted to hurt someone. I wanted to hurt this boy.
I wanted to tear his flesh apart with my teeth. I wanted him to bleed like my family had bled.
“I won’t lie to you,” he said. “This will hurt.”
Good. Let it hurt, I thought. Let me feel actual, physical pain.
The guide gathered dry twigs and a handful of dead grass. He drew out his tinderbox and struck flint to iron. The sparks touched the grass and smoke curled.
“I couldn’t start a fire at night,” he explained.
His voice was strange. It was two voices. One was a gruff baritone, but beneath that, as if concealed, was a second, softer voice. “We won’t make much smoke, and the angle of the sun will blind anyone pursuing us.”
He drew a knife.
I drew a sharp breath.
But he didn’t stab me. He held the knife blade over the fire. “The weir women say a hot knife heals better,” he said.
I didn’t care. I didn’t want to heal. I wanted to kill, or to die, and the two things were one in my mind.
All dead. All of them.
All of them.
“I have to make three small cuts,” the guide explained.
I heard his words, but they were just empty noise.
My family. My pack. All dead.
The blade burned as it pierced my skin, and I couldn’t help flinching. Luckily, the guide’s hand was swift and sure.
The pain went deep, but I did not scream.
I would never be weak for this human.
The second cut was worse. I had to grit my teeth until I feared they would crack.
The third cut was easier to endure. I was adjusting to the pain.
It was nothing compared to the pain inside me.
“I have to wiggle the arrow a bit,” said the guide, “to get it out.”
He did, and it hurt, but he was able to remove the arrow quickly. He cut the arrowhead from the broken shaft, wiped off my blood, and dropped the sharp point into a pouch on the side of his quiver.
I made an inventory of his weapons.
The bow and arrows.
The rusted sword that was too big for him and awkward when he knelt.
The knife in his boot.
The guide opened a leather pouch on his belt and drew out a crushed green leaf. He placed it over the wound in my side.
“Hard to keep in place on fur, but it will help the healing,” he said. He tied it in place with a long rag wound around my chest. “I was aiming for your leg, but you moved at the last minute,” he added, as if by way of apology.
“I wish you’d hit my heart dead-on,” I muttered, surprised to find myself capable of forming words. “At least I’d be with the others, where I belong.”
The guide gazed at me. They were the first words I’d spoken to him, and he seemed to be debating how to answer.
“I’m glad you survived,” he said at last.
I looked away. “I am not.”
With a sigh, the guide kicked the fire apart, scuffing dirt over it. “We need to move on,” he said.
Although he didn’t free my hands, tied uncomfortably behind my back, the guide undid the rope binding my back feet. He lifted me again, still tied, and with a heave that was at the limits of his strength set me astride the horse. I was sitting upright, no longer baggage.
With liquid grace, he leapt up behind me and reached around for the reins, and we were off at a quick trot.
We emerged from shadow into light. I didn’t recognize our location. This was not the forest or the meadow or the sea. We were in a dry place of low scrub and exposed rocks.
The boy kept his horse to the rocks as much as possible, making it harder to track hoofprints.
I told myself to see everything, that every detail would be useful for escape.
I tried to focus on the path ahead.
But it was no use.
No matter where I looked, all I saw were the piled bodies and sightless stares of everyone I had ever loved.
We moved on. Slowly our surroundings changed. The terrain grew rockier and more treacherous. The stand of pines that had been on our right thinned and finally ended. Every step, for both horse and guide, seemed to be a struggle.
The guide appeared tired. Yet he pushed on, urging the horse around outcroppings of glittering rock jutting so near that both the guide and I had to shift to avoid being scraped.
I studied the wind for something familiar, something knowable, and found nothing. It whispered and moaned but told me nothing of where I was or where I was going.
The wound on my side ached and burned. The crude bandage around my chest wouldn’t let me draw a full breath.
We crossed a chuckling stream, and I realized how thirsty I still was.
I heard the whispering wind, the stream, and perhaps—could it be?—something more.
My name on the breeze.
I waited, and there it was again.
I strained to listen but heard nothing else. Was it some echo of my mother’s voice? Did she still call to me from the land of the dead? But all I could hear was the clatter of the horse’s hooves on rock and the guide’s breathing.
You’re not thinking clearly, I told myself. Hearing what isn’t there.
And yet again it came.
I was hearing, perhaps, what I wanted to hear: someone, somewhere, searching for me. Someone who knew I was still alive.
The wind whispered its eerie music, and another memory came unbidden. My parents had been talking softly, just a few days earlier. They were sitting in the far corner of our makeshift home inside the mirabear hive, whispering about us. About my siblings and me.
They thought we were asleep.
When it comes to the subject of sleeping pups, parents are strangely skilled at fooling themselves.
“If trouble comes,” my mother said, her voice hushed.
“When trouble comes,” my father corrected.
“When trouble comes,” she continued, “I worry for them all. But especially I fear for Byx.”
I heard my name and startled. Still, I kept my eyes shut and my breathing slow and even. No one feigns sleep better than I.
“Why Byx, love?” my father asked.
“She’s so young. So small.” My mother’s voice trembled. “I had a dream, a terrible dream. They came for us. I dreamed she was the first to die.”
“The first to die.” My father was silent for a long while.
I remembered lying motionless, silent, scarcely breathing, waiting for more.
“I, too, had a dream,” my father said at last, sighing. “Worse in some ways. I dreamed”—his voice caught—“I dreamed she was the last to live.”
“No,” my mother said, and I could hear that she was softly sobbing. “Don’t even think such a thing.”
“They say humans have a word for it. Endling.”
My mother laughed bitterly. “They would have a word for it, wouldn’t they?”
My brother Reaphis, sleeping near the bottom of our tangled pile, nudged me with his foot. “Don’t worry, Byx,” he said. “They won’t waste arrows on a runt like you. You’re not worth the trouble of eating.”
“They don’t kill us to eat us,” my oldest sister hissed. She was the smartest among us, perhaps because she was the best eavesdropper. “They kill us for our fur. That’s what Dalyntor says.”
We’d all heard that rumor many times before. Not that it made it any less painful to hear.
“Are you asleep over there?” my mother called.
We knew well enough not to answer. My parents grew quiet, and so did we.
“Byxer?” my brother Jax murmured hours later. He couldn’t sleep either, it seemed.
“Yes?” I said softly.
“Don’t worry. Whatever happens, I’ll protect you.”
Jax was a year older. He was sweet and silly, and had one violet eye and one green one. He was my favorite, and I was his.
“I’ll protect you, too,” I said.
If I’d said that to any of my other siblings, they would have scoffed. Not Jax.
He reached for my hand.
When I woke up hours later, he was still holding on tightly.