Squirrel lay on his belly and peeked around the edge of the mossy granite, watching a group of children play in the ravine below him. The children had wild red hair, freckled brown skin and green eyes like Squirrel, but they were not of the Auriri. They never would be. The children ran and played with a delightful carelessness. “So arrogant!” thought Squirrel. “No animal dares come this close to the village. They play without any fear or sense.” He squirmed backward and lay with his back on the cold stone, gazing up at the clouds and the blue sky. He dreamed of putting an arrow into one of them, to watch them jump and run. He smiled. “That would show them!” he thought.
Squirrel’s earliest memory was of his mother, Redtail, standing over him and protecting him from a mountain cat, her growls and barks mixed with his memory of the terrifying snarls of the frustrated cat. Squirrel knew he was never safe, but he learned to either talk respectfully with the animals or keep out of their way. There were very few who could climb as well as he did, which is how he got his name. He was safe in the trees from everything but the bears and the cats, and by now he was friends with most of the bears. The cats were another matter. So were the villagers. When he was younger, he sometimes was seen when he came close to the village. The children called him “Changeling” and threw rocks. Once he came so close that the men had become angry. “Come here boy, we won’t hurt you,” they said, but he saw that their thoughts were of beating and killing him and worse. He ran and they followed, but in the end he managed to evade them. Cats and men remained his worst enemies for many years. Both were fast and clever and full of hate.
His reverie broke off when he heard voices coming closer. Worried, he poked his head back around the rock. Something was different. The children below were scared and calling for someone named Arric. One of them was lost, he realized, lost in his woods. One of the boys. Curious and still dreaming of revenge, he slid backward and ran down the slope back into the woods, hopping from rock to rock as he went. He slowed as the rocks grew moist with lichen in the shadow of the trees, and walked quietly through the thick moss of the forest floor. He had a brief chill and then started jogging, his steps swallowed by the trees.
It didn’t take long to find Arric. The boy had gone too deep into the woods as part of a game and had gotten turned around. Now he was walking softly and fearfully. Unknowingly, he was headed southward towards the mountains. There were few spots in the forest where one could see the sun and get one’s bearings. Squirrel tracked him for a time, but soon lost any interest in revenge. The boy was too small and pathetic for it to have any meaning. Squirrel ran south of the boy and then leaned out from behind a tree and showed himself.
Arric stopped immediately, staring at Squirrel. “Changeling,” he whispered to himself. Then he ran northward, terrified.
Squirrel followed at a distance, herding the boy towards the village. It was an easy lope for him, and he enjoyed the run so much that he ran into the open and stopped for a moment, enormously pleased with himself. He watched as Arric was surrounded by his worried friends and then, realizing that they were all staring at him, dodged back into the woods.
* * * * * *
Over the years, Squirrel more than once guided children out of the forest and back to the safety of the village fire. Sometimes they were grateful, but more often they were frightened. The village called him a changeling, a goblin baby left by the faeries in place of a human child. He had been born the son of Osric and Arnica. His ability to speak to people’s minds had developed while he was in the womb, and the village had thought itself assaulted by evil spirits or faeries for months. Arnica guessed the truth early in the pregnancy and as the rest of the village came to suspect, she grew frantic to be rid of the child. She ran into the woods where she gave birth, and then abandoned the child, running from him in terror as he spoke to her in her thoughts. “It’s cold mother,” she heard, “please come back! I am cold!” She committed suicide soon after his birth, haunted by fear and guilt, and the villagers feared what she had given birth to and hoped it was dead.
Redtail the wolf heard his cries and raised him with her cubs. She was the only mother he remembered. His brothers were Lowgrowler, Fatty, and Highheels, and his sisters were Bluetongue and Brokenleg. His people were the Auriri, the night howlers. If he was not as quick as the other Auriri, he was at least faster than the hill people. He knew the ways of the forest intimately, because he could speak to most of its creatures. When the jays chattered at him, he knew why. He knew where the rabbits were, even when they thought themselves hidden. And he could usually hear the bigger animals before they could smell him. Usually.
When he was a few years old, a villager saw him in the wolf pack. They hunted him as a changeling, but Redtail and Lowgrowler kept him safe. Brokenleg died protecting him. His reappearance confirmed the fears of the village. None but a goblin baby could have survived, and none but a faerie could live with the wolves.
Sometimes Squirrel snuck close enough to the village to listen to the warrior’s tales at night. He listened to their thoughts and words, and learned some of their ways. He stole a long claw called a sword from one while he was swimming, and a bow and arrows from another. The sword was easy enough to use, but it took him so long to learn the bow that the warriors began cursing the stalker in the shadows, the boggart who stole their arrows. It took many arrows before he learned the bow. Clothing was the easiest to steal, and lasted the longest. It was so warm, so luxurious. His first winters had been difficult ones. It was only the warm fur of his brothers and sisters, and the tender care of Redtail that allowed him to survive. He grew slowly, had no fur or claws, and was slow and weak of tooth. Brokentooth, his adopted father, accepted him with little grace, and would have bitten off his head if not for Redtail’s constant attention. With clothing came freedom from the den in winter, and he gloried in it. He began to repay the Auriri and prove his worth. When he found sleeping animals deep in the earth and under the snow, where even the Auriri could not smell them, even Brokentooth grudgingly praised him.
By the time Lowgrowler was a grandfather, Squirrel was one of the few old bachelors in the pack Brokentooth and Redtail were dead, as were Fatty and Brokenleg. The rest of the family was very old. He became the pack leader after killing Greatchest and defeating Longlegs. That was something — a Squirrel as pack leader! But he had started thinking about the girls of the village and he had learned about his parents from the minds of the villagers. He wondered if he would ever have a family, and ultimately resolved to wander the world and look for a home for himself in the human world. Lowgrowler accompanied him, knowing his position in the pack would be weak without Squirrel to protect him. Highheels and Bluetongue stayed.
After several months of traveling, Squirrel and Lowgrowler came to the edge of the civilized lands and could no longer travel by day. Eventually even Lowgrowler would go no further, and Squirrel left him behind in the woods, drawn to a small farmstead by the light of the house, the smell of meat cooking, and most of all by the voices of the people. They sounded happy and carefree, and Squirrel found himself getting much closer than he thought. He got too close, and was discovered and cornered in the barn, but to his surprise the people drew back, spoke softly and kindly, and brought him food.
He stayed with them for almost a month. He stared at everyone and investigated everything. His knack for working with animals was apparent and uncanny, but Brian Fremen and his family saw it as a practical gift and one developed no doubt by the boy’s obviously long and solitary stay in the woods. Brian’s wife Tabeka and her daughter Ania imagined him a runaway, perhaps from an abusive master. Roderic was just glad to have an extra hand in the barn and little Lutto was positively delighted by her new playmate. Squirrel, for his part, treasured this time and made sure he never spoke to them with his mind. Instead, he learned gestures and communicated that way, always feigning confusion when they asked how he came to their farm. But there came a day that Ania noticed how muscular and attractive he was, and Squirrel responded as any wolf would. Even then he might have stayed, but as they wrestled together, he whispered love thoughts to her, and she screamed. Squirrel ran hard and long, and Brian and Roderic were close behind. His wolfish lope slowly gained ground and he escaped into the familiar darkness of the woods, but his sword was lost along with much of his other hard-won supplies.
Squirrel found Lowgrowler still in the woods, but the old wolf was thin and dry as a leaf in autumn. He was too old to hunt, and had been reduced to eating grass and bugs, and the occasional chipmunk that got too close. It took several weeks for Squirrel to nurse him back to health, and it all had to be done on the run, since Brian had recruited the nearby village to help search for the otherworldly and ungrateful youth he had unknowingly sheltered.
A year after he left the pack, and eight months after the Fremen farm, Squirrel arrived another, much larger homestead. An impressive manor house dominated the farm, and there were several thatched cottages and outbuildings arranged near it. A well lay in the center of the steading, and near it a paddock for training horses. There was even a doughty warhorse who took his exercise in the field, with several mares at his command.
By this time, Squirrel had again filched enough supplies and even some townsmen’s clothing that he resembled a vagabond more than the wolf boy that the Fremens had encountered. Cautiously, he approached on one of the smaller cottages and made it clear through gestures that he would clean out the stables or carry wood in exchange for food. His offer was accepted, though with great suspicion and doubt. His sword and bow were demanded and yielded when Krisse, the farm’s overseer, promised to return them when the boy left the farm. Krisse put him to work mucking out the stables.
Again, Squirrel’s uncanny skill with the horses was apparent, although the dogs disliked him and barked and snarled whenever he got close. Knosse was still undecided about the boy, but despite checking the locks, he had the beginnings of a hope about him.
Squirrel meanwhile kept faith with Lowgrowler, bringing him scraps in the night and sometimes sleeping with him. The steading’s dogs refused to stomach the boy any longer when he returned to the settlement that night with the wolf scent on him stronger than ever. Krisse and his wife woke suddenly to the sound of snarling and barking dogs. Krisse grabbed his staff and came running, and when he saw the new boy surrounded by the dogs, he feared the worst. But Squirrel had made good use of the time and had easily defeated the pack leader. Squirrel was a strong young man, knew exactly to fight a dog, and how to take command afterwards. Krisse was astonished to find the boy rubbing the belly of Roddy, the biggest of the dogs. This was unprecedented. The dogs hadn’t liked the boy at all that afternoon, but now they were behaving as if they’d known him all their lives. He obviously had startled the dogs and gotten a deep bite on his right calf, but somehow he had come through unscathed. Krisse had seen the pack tear into raccoons and even an old boar. Strange. Krisse was so intent on cleaning the wound that he didn’t notice Tom pulling fur from his mouth.
Krisse began to count himself lucky to find such a talented and hard-working boy. Though obviously a vagabond, the boy worked relentlessly and although a mute, he was clever and could make himself known by various signs. Krisse called the boy Tom, and his neighbors soon added the sobriquet of “Silent.” Silent Tom seemed a golden find. Krisse began to consider offering the boy a permanent place at the steading when Lord Rosk returned from the capitol at the end of the month.