“The… his… there isn’t a word! I know all the words, and there isn’t one. It’s from all the things! He has these little parts inside, and they’re doing the wrong stuff. They’re like everyone else’s, but different a little. They got, um, they got bad and that’s why he’s that color now. He was getting too hot so he needed to cool down, but that won’t be enough,” said Wolfscar, vaguely pointing into Seff’s body to try and explain.
Dyana knelt down to try and read the fairy’s expression more clearly. She said, “If it’s too hard to explain, that’s fine. Just tell me what to do for him, or how to get him to help. I have to save him, Wolfscar. I have to.” She spoke through a lump in her throat that made her voice choppy. She hid nothing behind any discipline, hoping that the honest pain in her expression would motivate him to do whatever it took.
He looked up at her, eyes suddenly wide, face otherwise blank. He said nothing.
“Woofscaw, can you help me?” said Seff, his voice still crackling and weak. “Please?”
The fairy’s gaze shot to Seff, who had opened his eyes slightly, just enough to catch and reflect the fairy’s light and glow in narrow bands of silver. His lips were pursed and frowning, and his eyebrows plaintively furrowed.
Wolfscar didn’t answer right away, but when he did, his glow paled slightly and his voice sounded distant and resigned. He pointed northwest and said, “I can fix him. I have to do it because no one will be able to, I think, even if we go somewhere. And he asked, so I will. There’s some honey in a tree, that way. It’s past twelve big trees, then two little ones, then a red thing, and then the tree it’s in is bendy. It’s in a hole. You need to go get it so Seff can eat it. But don’t take a bigger piece than your hand or the bees will starve. I don’t want them to, so don’t. They kept me warm once.”
“Wait, you can fix him? How?” Dyana asked.
“I don’t want to say. It’s a secret,” replied Wolfscar. He folded his arms around his knees and curled into a ball.
“What do you mean, it’s a secret? What are you going to do?”
“A secret means I don’t want to tell you! So hurry and go get it!” he shouted through clenched teeth. He spun on his backside and faced away from her, arms still folded tightly. “After he eats the honey, he’ll need water, so think about getting some for him after. But don’t come back without the honey. No matter what.”
Something in the fairy’s voice frightened her, but she had no idea what to do other than obey him. Dyana took Seff’s hand and squeezed it, and Seff weakly tried to squeeze hers back. He truly was about to die. She stood. “Thank you, Wolfscar. I’ll be right back.”
She left at a quick jog, hoping she could tell the big trees apart from the others. She soon discovered that she needed more information: did Wolfscar think tall trees were big, or wide ones? She dare not go back, though; he had been serious about getting her out of there. Whatever he had in mind to do, he didn’t want her to see it.
Having a task should make her feel like she was doing something useful and get rid of some of her frustration and desperation. It didn’t. She wanted to scream.
She shook her head and focused on her surroundings and decided to just keep count of the most notable large trees, whether they were tall or wide, and hope she ended up close enough to find the honey. Sure enough, after passing a zigzagging path through a series of open areas, she found what Wolfscar had called the ‘red thing’—a brownish-red rock jutting out from the snow, right next to a gnarled, dead tree, old enough it should no longer be standing.
She raced over, feeling hopeful for the first time in weeks. Peering into the dark hole in the trunk, she saw four large combs, but only two had any honey left. The bees were gathered on only one of them, so she held her breath and reached in for the other comb and tore off a heavy, sticky piece about as big as her hand, just as instructed. The bees never came after her. Perhaps they kept quiet in winter? She would have to ask.
As she pulled it out, a falcon’s cry startled her and she almost dropped it. Something about it bothered her, even though she quickly realized what it was. Did they even come out in the winter? She had no idea, but apparently they did. She checked both sides of the comb to make sure there were no bees on it and was about to head back when the falcon cried again.
Then again, strong and fierce. And again. It sounded a bit off, now that she listened. Her good spirits, which had only just begun to settle in, started to slip away. Worry crept in. Something about that sound grew unnerving.
She paused and listened, and for a moment there came only silence. She shook her head, and with it banished the edges of worry and smiled. It was genuine; Seff was waiting for her. He might be healed already.
The falcon’s cry pierced the air again, plaintive and hoarse, and this time she knew it was no falcon. It was Wolfscar, screaming in soul-wracking agony.
He was going to heal Seff, not…! Spirits that was a wail. She whimpered in terror and raced back as fast as she could, holding the comb steady to make sure she didn’t fling any of the honey out. As she got closer, she heard Seff crying hysterically alongside Wolfscar’s screams, which were finally diminishing in volume if not in intensity of pain.
She ran, desperately aware of how far away Wolfscar had sent her, terrified that they would both be dead when she got back. She ran for an eternity. Wolfscar wailed in agony, and Seff wailed along with him.
The fairy’s howls of pain slackened and ceased just before she got back and could see what was going on, and she knew he had died. Her heart broke.
When she could finally got close enough to see, however, the fairy was still alive and whispering something into Seff’s ear. Seff was sitting up, tears streaming down his face, crying with his mouth hanging open. He nodded several times to whatever Wolfscar was telling him.
Wolfscar kissed his cheek, then shot into the sky. Seff reached his arms out toward the fairy, then let them fall to his sides. He keened and collapsed into the blankets to weep helplessly. “Woofscaw, I’m sowwy!” he shouted in a single hasty burst.
In her confusion, Dyana nearly turned to chase after Wolfscar again and ask him what had happened. Seff was more important, though, and she raced to her little boy.
He noticed her just as she tore the blankets off him, and he shrieked in startlement and started coughing.
His skin was perfect. Not a hint of gray remained. She rubbed his forearm between her thumb and fingers and found his skin resilient and vital. She placed her hand on his forehead, removed it, and placed it again. And again, just to be sure. His fever was gone.
“What happened?” she asked. “What happened to Wolfscar? What did he do?”
Seff’s answer was to start crying harder, and looking at him, it wasn’t about to stop any time soon. An image of a scowling Agurne flashed through her mind, accompanied by a pang of guilt. The imaginary woman was right--first things first. She set the honey aside and gathered him into her arms.
He clung to her tightly with both arms and legs, and even whipped his tail around to hold her with that. He buried his face in her shoulder and sobbed while she gently ran her fingers up and down his spine. She cried right along with him, part due to pity, part due to her own relief. So much of her worry and fear dripped out in her tears that when she stopped, she felt emptied and cleansed.
It took him quite a while longer to quiet down, but she welcomed it. After the unending dread and helplessness of the last few days, she needed the noise. Especially from him.
Eventually he stopped crying, and she cradled him in her arms like a babe while he ate the honey. He ate it slowly, biting off one pocket at a time and letting each bite melt away before taking another. His eyes gazed dreamily into nothingness as he let the honey rest on his tongue, and came into focus with purpose each time he chewed and swallowed the wax. Watching him was a balm to her spirit. It warmed her to the core.
Once the honey was gone, he licked his fingers clean and kept on licking. When she told him it was time to stop, he tried to lick her fingers instead, giggling like birdsong. She tickled him for a moment, and he shrieked in joy. He almost overexaggerated his laughter, as though he could hardly believe his recovery, either.
Finally she asked, “Do you want to tell me what happened with Wolfscar?”
After an uncomfortable pause, Seff answered, “I can’t.”
“He made me say.”
“That I can’t tell anybody.”
They sat in silence for a time. Dyana wanted to press the boy and get more information out of him, but Seff had a conflicted look on his face and wouldn’t meet her gaze. And she kept thinking about what the fairy had said about loyalty. He hardly knew her, and he had it mostly wrong, but she didn’t want to set a bad example, did she?
“He said it wouldn’t do that!” blurted out Seff. His face was all twisted up with emotion, and Dyana hugged him close again.
“I didn’t mean to!”
They met each other’s eyes and an understanding passed between them; she wanted to ask but would not, and he wanted to tell and would not.
Moments passed, and something changed in her heart. Maybe it was the fairy’s attempt at lecturing; maybe it was surviving the stress of the last few weeks. It seemed that her conscience had been awoken, and some new clarity or wisdom drove her to confront something she had been doing her best to ignore all this time: Seff was not her child.
Wolfscar had her all wrong; she was loyal. She could be a true as the sea, as reliable as the tides and moon, but she had to know she was doing the right thing. She didn’t know that right now, not really, and it was making a mess of her. Seff was not her child. He might still have parents out there who would want him back. Perhaps not, but until she knew, what she was doing was wrong. She told Wolfscar she‘d been looking for Seff’s people, but that wasn’t the full truth—she’d just been trying to get rid of him, not return him to his family. She didn’t even want to think about him as having one, other than her.
She took several deep breaths before she spoke. Once she started speaking, a boulder would begin to roll, and it might never stop. She would be powerless. She would just have to watch where it went. But she had to push. She had to do the right thing, and she had to start it rolling now. Her guilt needed to come out of her.
Her voice didn’t come when she first opened her mouth, and she had to cough and start again. She said, “Seffy, it’s okay. It’s a special secret just between you and your little friend. Best friends always have secrets just for them. And besides, Wolfscar knew what he was doing. I don’t know what he did, but I know he did it on purpose.”
Seff nodded and relaxed in her arms; she could feel some of the tension leave him. She kissed his forehead right between the horn nubs.
“Do you fink he’s my best fwiend?” asked Seff.
“He’s a little boy just like you, isn’t he? Except littler,” she replied. “And he came and saved you, just in time, even though it hurt him. So what do you think?”
Seff didn’t say anything to that; he just gazed off into the distance as serious thoughts marched around in his head.
The boulder was still rolling, though, and it would not be denied. Although Dyana could feel her heart trembling, she put on her best nonchalant voice and asked, “Seff, I’ve got a question for you. Do you remember much about your real mother? Do you think she’s still alive?”
Seff’s eyes shot wide open and he stared up at her slack-jawed. Soon he was looking past her into the sky as he wandered into his memory.
After a moment, she nudged him gently. “Well?” she asked. “Do you remember?”
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “She was a Night People like me.”
“Mothers are always the same kind as their children, Seff,” said Dyana.
“What about Flowew and Peppew?”
“They had different mothers before Agurne. Bad things happened to both of them, and Androkles and Agurne adopted them. That means they made them their children, even though they started out as somebody else’s. In fact, my father adopted me. I’m here looking for my own tribe, remember? But I want to ask about your mother. Do you remember her much? Do you still think about her?”
“She played wif me. It was before I was unner de wock. Dat was weally long ago. She cashed fish fwom da wivew and cooked ‘em. We lived wif lots of ovver Night People.”
Dyana’s spirits began to droop at the clarity of his recollection; that boulder kept on rolling, faster and faster.
“What was she like? Was she nice?”
“Yeah. I always wenembe’ed her when I was unner da wock. I missed hew weally bad. I fink she was a good mama,” said Seff. “I still miss hew.”
His eyes were as distant as they had ever been, and the silver they flashed against the sky seemed to Dyana to be slightly tarnished with age. It was as though he had gone from being a new and wondrous thing she’d discovered to a lost treasure--someone else’s possession. She could almost feel him drawing away from her as that imaginary boulder picked up speed.
There was one last chance to stop it rolling, and everything hinged on this question.
“Seffy, do you think she’s still alive? Or your father?” she asked.
He took a moment to respond, but then he said, “I hope so. I wenembew her cwying when dey cashed me. I had a favver too. I miss him too.”
The boulder crashed through the last barrier without slowing, and things would never be the same again. Dyana waited for the heartbreak to hit her, now that she knew that Seff was truly not hers, and she would likely have to give him back and never see him again, this precious child she’d done everything for.
But it didn’t hit her, not like that. Instead it felt like a weight lifted from her, like some burden turned to smoke and drifted out of her and vanished in the breeze. This was no comfort, and she furrowed her brow and tried to keep from feeling any relief at all, lest Wolfscar turn out to be right about her. She wasn’t disloyal. She wasn’t faithless. She would not be happy to see Seff go… that couldn’t be right, it just couldn’t…