Fox, Coyote, Wolf, and Moose had watched Milas and Daidam prepare a shallow depression in the ground for the two-legged to be placed. They continued to watch as special care was given to collecting and placing stones until the body could be seen no more. Moose then wandered some distance away to nibble on clusters of flowers that grew on the end of long stalks. While seeming to give no care to the others, Fox didn’t fail to notice that his large brown eyes kept watch on the two-leggeds.
“What are we to do with them?” Coyote asked Fox.
Wolf snarled. “They cannot stay.”
“They cannot go,” Coyote told him. “The path is no more.”
“If it ever existed.”
Fox stretched then curled her body until her head could rest on her front paws. “We wait for Badger.”
“To tell us what?” Wolf growled. “That the two-leggeds threaten Airhini? This we know.”
Coyote sighed. “They have made no threats.” He flopped over onto his side. “Why do you not trust their words?”
Wolf glared at the relaxed Coyote. “Are they not two-leggeds.”
“You speak true.”
“Then that is your answer.”
Coyote laughed. “You are a good guardian, Wolf. But see no threat where none be.”
“Your words are twisted.” Wolf grumbled before stalking away to find a shady spot to wait for Badger’s return.
Milas, her arms full of stones, walked back to where Daidam knelt beside a mound of rocks. She stood patiently while Daidam removed each stone from her arms and added it to the pile.
“It is done,” Daidam said when the last stone was placed. Then she reached out and lovingly rested her hand on top of the rock tomb that encased her father’s broken body. “May your spirit stay strong as you watch over Mother and Kailen.”
“Any you, Daidam,” Milas said quietly as she knelt beside her grieving friend.
Slowly, Daidam shook her head. “I am no more of Arhdahl. His spirit will not protect me.”
“Do not speak so. You are of the House of Alasdair as are your mother and brother.”
“I crossed the forbidden zone. My name is no more.” Daidam turned to look at Milas, her sadness reflected in her eyes. “As is yours.”
“It was a choice I made freely. You did not.”
“But a choice made serves no purpose to now question. We are as dead to the Realm as Father.”
On the ground next to Daidam was another yet another but different stone. While her father’s tomb was covered with sharp, jagged stones that had fallen from the sides of the butte that towered above, this stone was smooth and flat and large enough for Daidam to spread both palms across its surface without her fingertips touching any edge. And it was not as hard as the others, for she had had little difficulty scratching her father’s name into it. She reached down to lift the name stone and, with the help of Milas, it was placed so all who came upon the grave would know of the Protector resting there.
“He served the Realm well,” Milas said when the name stone was set.
“Aye.” Daidam lowered her head. Memories of her father flooding into her mind and she allowed herself the time to remember.
“What will become of us?” Milas whispered moments later when Daidam raised her head.
“I know not.”
Fox and Coyote’s ears twitched and their heads turned toward the forest. “Badger returns,” Fox told the others.
Wolf stopped his pacing and trotted over to face Milas and Daidam. His upper lip curled back to reveal sharp teeth as he released a low growl. “Good. Now we can be rid of the two-leggeds.”
Badger entered the clearing. Fox and Coyote fell into step behind her as she rumbled past and Moose trotted over to join them. Badger stopped at the grave. “You have done well with your respite,” she commented. “It is good. And you? Do you still suffer?” she asked Milas.
“I feel no effects of the fall.”
“You are strong.” Badger swung her head around to look at Fox, “Yet others have strengths few might see.” Fox simply cocked her head at Badger’s admonition.
“Enough of this,” Wolf interrupted. “Did you consider the two-legged’s words?” Badger nodded. “They are lies, are they not?”
Badger did not answer Wolf. Instead, she looked at Daidam. “You spoke of one called Thoralf.”
“Mother?” Milas blurted out.
“You are of her blood?” Badger asked.
Badger thought for a moment. “Then it is decided,” she finally said.
Wolf smirked. “They will join the other under the rocks.”
“No. They are to return to the butte.”
“But… How?” Daidam asked. “The path is no more. You have seen for yourself,” she said to Coyote who nodded. She twisted to look up the face of the cliff behind them. “To climb cannot be.”
“You will return,” Badger told Daidam. “But first, there are truths for you to learn.”
“I do not understand,” Daidam said.
Badger smiled, knowingly. “You will. Now go. Find your way back.”
Wolf growled. “No! You cannot allow them to move at will. They are a threat.”
“They are but two. They can bring no harm.” Badger moved to stand between the two-leggeds and the snarling Wolf. “They must find the way.”
“Then, as Protector of Airhini, I shall guide them.”
Badger shook her head. “No. They have many questions for which to seek answers. This cannot be with you at their side. But you speak true, a guide will be needed. Coyote will accompany them. But,” she said turning to face Coyote, “only until you find the path that will take them to the top of the butte.”
“And where shall that be?” Coyote asked. “Where will it appear to me?”
“That is for them to choose.”
“Why do you speak as if we agree with your words? And why did you speak of my mother?” Milas asked.
Daidam added her concerns. “We cannot return to Arhdahl. It is forbidden. Why do you not hear this?”
Badger turned around to face them. “Questions you may ask, but answers you must find. Go now.” She then turned around and walked back toward the forest, Fox and Moose following her. After a last glare and snarl, Wolf also trotted away.
“You must ask,” Coyote said when Daidam and Milas looked at him in confusion after the others had disappeared back into the deep shadows cast by the trees.
“I know not what to ask,” Daidam muttered. “Milas, what say you?”
“My head is spinning, Daidam,” Milas said. “Their words make no sense.”
Daidam rubbed her stomach. “My belly grumbles with emptiness and I cannot think.”
“The apples are gone,” Milas said after looking at the empty piece of bark under the tree.
“Are there more?” Daidam asked Coyote.
“Come, I will take you.”
Badger sat just inside the forest. Fox and Wolf sat beside her and Moose stood behind them. “Moose, go and tell all you meet that they are not to hinder the two-leggeds. Let them move through the Realm unchallenged.”
“As you say,” Moose said then trotted off.
“Wolf, I know you do not understand my reasoning.”
“You have provided none.”
“No. But trust you must give.”
“You allow the two-leggeds to live. Do you trust them?”
“I cannot do the same,” Wolf said before trotting further into the woods.
“He will follow,” Fox said.
“Aye. But he will not interfere.”
“The two-leggeds will learn of their past?”
“And what of their future?”
Badger smiled. “It is a choice not of my making.”
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