June 15, 708 CR
“It's late, Braeder! Dusk will be here soon.”
Braeder's masked face favored him with a sharp-fanged grin. The short, stout raccoon waved a clawed hand at the still-bright sky beyond the trees and scoffed. “It's June, Elbert. The sun hasn't even touched the mountains yet. We've at least two hours more to search.”
Elbert crossed his red-furred arms and flicked his long tail. “For a stupid cow. She was probably eaten by bears or wolves or wandered into the Haunted Woods. Besides, I thought you didn't need any help tracking down a cow.”
His younger brother scowled and glanced down at the tangle of brush following the stream. They had left the fields of Mycransburg behind only a candlemark before, but already the forest felt dense and wild. Even for a squirrel Elbert felt out of place here. “Aye, I did. But I lost her trail last night and...” he clicked his tongue against his teeth and hissed, “and you are the better tracker.”
Elbert felt a small flush of delight at his brother's admission, but he was still annoyed. “Then why not fetch me to help chase her down this morning? You know my eyes are not so good once night falls.”
Braeder shrugged and scratched the back of his neck. “Well, Master Gorthen always has so many chores for you...”
“As if he's ever stopped you before. Only last month you were sneaking ale from his larder.”
His brother tipped his head to one side, scratching his neck harder. “Well, it was only a few pints really. Nothing he'd miss...”
“And two months ago you convinced me to skip my chores to go fishing because you saw, let me see if I remember right, 'the biggest bass there ever was just leaping onto shore'.”
“Well aye, but those were fish!” His eyes glimmered as he said the word. “This is just a cow. No need to bother Master Gorthen or the other landsmen.”
Elbert sighed and flicked his tail before hopping a step to his brother's side. He nudged him with an elbow. “I think our mighty little scout here didn't want anybody else to know he needed help. Come on, admit it!”
Braeder ground his fangs together and a snarl escaped his throat. “Oh, fine! Aye, I have a reputation to keep you know! So you've come this far; are you going to help me find this cow or what?”
Elbert chittered and scratched one cheek, blinking his eyes and flicking his tail a time or two at his brother before finally tilting his head back and in an exaggerated sigh declare, “Oh, very well, I suppose I can lend the mighty little scout my feeble aid in finding a lost cow! You owe me some chores for this you know. I could be enjoying a pint of ale with a heaping plate of Mistress Rosalie's walnut pie right now.”
Braeder rolled his eyes. “Walnut pie! Nut-muncher!”
“Trash-sniffer!” And so saying, Elbert lunged and grabbed his brother in a head-lock, and mussed his head-fur with his knuckles. “Eh, little brother?”
Braeder batted his shoulders with his hands until the squirrel let go, laughing the whole time. “All right! All right! I'll buy you a walnut pie when we get back. Fair enough? Can we go find this cow now, please?”
“Fair enough. Show me the trail and where you lost it.”
The pair continued into the woods. Elbert didn't need his younger brother's help in spotting the old heifer's trail; where there were no hoof-marks trodden through the blanket of moss there were snapped branches from her passage; what few patches of grass and wildflowers they found had been denuded.
The brothers kept silent as they moved. They walked bare pawed as did most animal-cursed scouts – climbing trees and bracing in the dirt was easier with claws, and if something should happen to them, it would be simple to follow their tracks for there would be nothing else like them in the deep woods. Elbert could see the few tracks Braeder had left behind the previous night following a pace or two beside the cow's. His brother's steps last night had been cautious and slow, deliberate and chosen for silence. The steps they left behind this evening were unhurried and even – a natural walking pace.
The forest sloped downward from the hillside on which Mycransburg sat nestled against the mountains. Most of the decline was shallow enough it did not even feel like they were going down but they would know they were heading uphill on the way back. This made it easy for cows to wander into the woods and get lost but as they continued, Elbert realized he'd never seen one go quite so far. The markers for the Haunted Woods were still a good distance to the north, but the closeness of the heavy-set trees, the suffocating layers of moss and ivy crawling over every exposed inch of dirt and bark, and the muffled noises of normal birds and squirrels in the branches overhead gave the woods an eerie cast he did not like.
“Here we are,” Braeder whispered after hopping down a large boulder into a shallow gully. The boulder was crisscrossed with little gouges from centuries of rain providing an easy path to descend. Elbert saw a single hoof-print in a bit of dirt filling a gouge.
But once he reached the base of the stone he could see his brother was right. There were no more hoof-marks and there were no broken branches or even a single cropped blade of grass. He scratched his head and flicked his tail as he stared at the boulder and then scoured the surrounding trees. No wonder his brother had come to him for help. It was as if the cow had stepped into the air and never landed nor left. But where was it?
The small glade darkened as the sun set behind the southern mountains and Elbert muttered a curse under his breath. He clicked his tongue on his incisors and set his pack in front of him. “What are you doing?” Braeder asked as he leaned over his brother.
“Fetching my lantern. I told you I have trouble seeing at night.”
“Aw, but I love the night! Lanterns ruin everything.”
“Well, then you find the cow for yourself.”
“Fine, fine!” Braeder grimaced and kicked at the ground, sending a couple of loose stones clattering among the trees. Elbert bit back a reprimand.
Once his raccoon brother stopped pestering him the squirrel had no trouble finding his lantern and flint. There was enough oil for about four hours but he hoped they'd be enjoying walnut pie with a tankard of ale by then. He lit the wick on the first try and after a quarter-turn had a vibrant yellow flame. He lifted it and scanned the weird shadows flickering between the trees. His nose stretched and he breathed in stale airs. The wind was still and all he could find was the familiar and comforting scent of his brother.
While Braeder watched – and kicked at the moss and the dirt beneath it – Elbert pored over the stone and brambles where the cow last left its mark. Even with the additional light he could make out nothing new. After a candlemark he just shook his head. “It's as if the cow stepped off the stone and floated away. No, 'tis foolish! There must be something!”
Elbert took a strip of leather and put it between his incisors to gnaw while he thought. He cast a glance at his brother and saw Braeder had dredged up several stone chips and was pushing them into a pile with his toes. He rolled his eyes and walked around the circle of trees, lifting his lantern high and then low to make the shadows move. He could see the passage of smaller creatures, and even where Braeder had struck out the night before in his vain search.
“Why did you go this way?” Elbert asked as he pointed into the trees.
Braeder flipped one of the stones over his toes and then turned his head. He grimaced, wriggling his snout, and shrugged. “I thought I saw something down there. Turned out to be a stream going toward the Haunted Wood. It didn't even have any fish in it.” He said the last as if it had been a personal affront.
Elbert listened and after a short time he could hear the gentle tumble of water over stone. The stream was probably only there during the Spring thaw. In another month or two it would dry up and flow only when it rained. “The cow would have gone for water. But I don't even see a deer trail through here. Did you see anything down there?”
“No hoof-marks. No bits of hide stuck in branches. Nothing. The cow didn't go there.”
Elbert sighed and then hooked the lantern to his belt. He put his hands on the nearest oak, and then jumped upward. His claws dug into the bark and after a few seconds he'd scaled up to the first awning of branches. A measure of confidence filled him as he surveyed the close-packed woods and a smile graced his snout. He loved being in trees. Even before he became a squirrel he loved to climb the ones near the fields. He often pondered what life was like in the giant trees of Glen Avery; if not for his brother and their friends here he would have left last year to join their scouts.
“Do you see anything up there?”
“Nothing yet. I...” Elbert's voice caught in his throat when his eyes lifted to the branches still above him. Several of them had been broken and thin hairs were caught between them. He traced each break back toward his brother and saw a straight line to the boulder. He turned and followed another line arcing back to the ground beyond their sight. He chittered and bit hard on the strap of leather.
“Braeder, something very strange is happening. The cow went through the tree.”
“You heard me, fish-for-brains! The cow went through the tree!”
“How can a cow climb through a tree?”
“It can't! Somebody must have used magic to bring it through. But who would do such a thing...” His eyes widened and he turned and jumped back out of branches. “Let's get out of here. I don't like this.”
Braeder crossed his arms. “Would you make sense, brother? What are you talking about?”
Elbert grabbed the raccoon by the shoulder and pointed into the tree. “There's some magic at work here! Some magic lifted the cow and carried her through the tree. It can't be the Haunted Wood, we're not close yet. It has to be a Lutin shaman. This where we are standing is a trap!”
Braeder's eyes widened and he cast a furtive glance around. “I hate Lutins! Let's go!”
They ran for the boulder and the path back home. But they stopped in shock and stared gaped mouth at what sat there in the shadows. Its legs, crossed beneath it, were those a wolf. Its chest was covered in heavy furs, and a slightly distorted face, not quite muzzle, not quite human, greeted them. Furred ears were high and attentive on his skull, and one hand was held in his lap. Two baubles rested against each other there. One glimmered a bright orange; the other was dull.
The creature smiled, a long red tongue passing across beastly fangs. From behind them three wolves loped out of the woods on silent paws. “Hello my little ones,” the creature said. “We need your help.”
Two hours later, Braeder bought Elbert the promised walnut pie. They never found the cow.