After five days’ traveling on the personnel carrier, Elfric understood completely why Corporal Tezelin had asked for help upon his arrival at Leeward. The bear cub chewed on everything it could reach and bawled whenever Elfric had to intervene. He had to cradle it on its back on his knees and play with it until it fell asleep for a few hours; then the drama would begin again. No one else on Father’s bus had animal sympathy, so everyone who tried to help him caused the cub to climb Elfric’s chest and snap its jaws at the person.
The only person able to intervene was Private Bertie Hart from Mother’s staff. He came aboard Father’s personnel carrier the third day, at Father’s request, with his jaguar trailing languidly behind him. He knelt in the aisle at Elfric’s knee. Uttering a soft series of grunts, Hart tickled the cub with gentle fingers. “Why are you sitting there?”
Elfric just looked at him in incomprehension. “Sitting… here?”
“Get down here.” Hart wouldn’t relent until Elfric knelt on the floor. “Little cubs like little spaces. It’s safe. And it wants to sleep. Mm, down here.” Hart modeled his meaning by crawling under the bench seat and curling up.
The cub scrambled to snuggle against Hart’s chest.
“So you think… I should lie on the floor,” said Elfric reluctantly, “under the seat.”
Elfric bent down to look under the seat. “I won’t fit.”
Looking him up and down, Hart said, “Mm, maybe so. We’ll try something else.” He pushed the cub to Elfric and rolled out from under the seat. “Back here.” He went to the prisoner transport cell at the back of the bus. It was half-full of luggage, so Hart let himself in and started throwing the luggage around until he had formed a sort of cave. “This is good,” he said as he surveyed his own handiwork. “Here.”
Elfric picked up the cub and shuffled along the aisle to the cell.
“It’s okay,” said Hart. “You’ll fit.”
Elfric sighed. He settled into the concavity among the baggage and pulled the cub against his chest. “Like this?”
“Mm. Like a hibernating mama bear,” Hart agreed. “He’s happier already.” Then he curled up amongst the luggage, and his jaguar laid with its head on his hip.
Elfric heard Lieutenant Jock Knox ask, “Sir, are you sure it’s a good idea to apprentice Tarbengar to Hart like this?”
“It suits the need of the moment,” Father replied, “and there’s little to no risk of permanent change to Tarbengar’s natural tendencies.”
So Elfric spent half the trip sitting amongst the luggage in an unlocked cell, barely interacting with any of the human passengers. Only Sanna Taivas came at regular intervals to ask if he needed anything, or to bring to him things he reluctantly admitted to needing. Sometimes these things would come by the hand of Rusza Tate, who was never to be seen very far from Taivas, but his presence always agitated the cub.
Then, at last, Father Locke called out, “Arrival in ten. Everyone, get ready.”
Elfric sat up, ran his fingers through his hair, and tried to rub some of the wrinkles out of his trouser legs. When the personnel carrier rolled to a stop, he waited with the cub under his arm until the Lieutenants Knox and Mica Locke opened the back to commence removing the luggage. The cub squirmed in Elfric’s hold. It needed to relieve itself, and Elfric had forbidden it to do so amongst the luggage. He jumped down and hurriedly carried the cub away from the open ground, toward a stand of trees and shrubs he spotted not too far away.
A rumble of voices began in conversation on the far side of the personnel carrier. Elfric knew he should be over there, present for introductions, but the cub was taking its time, like it knew of his impatience and was testing its limits. Then Elfric thought he heard his own surname mentioned. He stepped away from the exploring cub just far enough to poke his head around the back of the personnel carrier, in case he had been summoned.
He saw several lines of soldiers amassed across the parade grounds. A large man, dark and built not unlike a young grizzly bear, suddenly turned and looked as Father Locke pointed toward Elfric. Then the big soldier charged with astonishing speed. Elfric had only moments to recognize the happy face of his eldest brother Gisler before Gisler tackled him and lifted him off his feet in a rib-creaking hug. Gisler was laughing as he shouted, “Sir, permission to kidnap my little brother!”
“Permission granted,” Father Locke replied.
Then Elfric was released from the hug, only to be slung across Gisler’s shoulders and carried away like a calf. The next several minutes were a breathless blur, until Gisler dropped Elfric onto his feet and squeezed him in a second hug. “You got so big, Elfric,” Gisler panted, “but I’m still your big brother!” Sweat ran down his face from the exertion, but tears ran as well when Gisler gripped Elfric by the shoulders and held him at arm’s-length for inspection.
Elfric discovered that his own cheeks were damp. “I’ve missed you, brother,” he said.
“And I’ve missed you. Come inside! See my cabin.” Gisler retained his left-hand grip on Elfric’s shoulder as he pulled open the door to the plain log cabin behind them. “This is home now for me. Do you remember Ulf?”
Inside the cabin was dark, close, and heavily scented of pine and musk. In front of a banked fire, an elderly wolf had lifted its head upon their entrance. A much younger blue merle shepherd dog was leaping at Gisler in frenzied welcome. “This is Merle,” Gisler continued, rubbing the dog’s thick fur. “And in the corner there is Ule.”
Elfric turned to look. It took a few moments before his eyesight adjusted enough for him to see the great gray owl perched on the back of a large armchair in the corner. He found himself petting Merle without thought as the shepherd turned its enthusiastic attention to him. Then a clatter on the roof startled him. “What was that?”
“I rescued two mountain goats last month. They like running on the roof.”
Elfric started to laugh. “I never gave it much thought, but this is just the kind of home I would’ve imagined you choosing for yourself, brother.” He returned his gaze to Gisler’s face. “It has been such a long time.”
“You don’t need to tell me that,” Gisler agreed. “I’ve been unbearably antsy ever since I heard that you were arriving today. You’ve grown into a fine young man. Here, take a seat that isn’t moving,” he urged. “I have food if you’re hungry.” He brought out jerked meat and dried fruit, as well as a small loaf of rustic bread. “Eat as much as you want.”
To all practical purposes enthroned before the fireplace, Elfric accepted the platter his brother urged upon him. The wolf lay back down with its head on Elfric’s boots. The shepherd kept winding itself around Gisler’s legs. “Brother…”
Gisler was instantly alert. “What is it? Is there something you want?”
“Why did you go away?”
A long, heavy sigh was Gisler’s first response. “They didn’t tell you?”
“No one talks about it,” said Elfric. “The one time I did ask, Rosine hushed me and told me not to talk about you, and Father looked grieved. I thought at first they meant you died.”
Gisler crossed the room. The floorboards creaked under his strides, and the armchair that was Ule’s perch creaked under his weight. He fixed his dark eyes on Elfric frankly. “I didn’t leave; I was expelled.”
Overwhelmed by the shock, Elfric couldn’t help blurting out, “You?”
Gisler nodded his heavy head. “You were so young that you didn’t know what was happening then. It started when Ulf was brought in, just a yearling pup, torn by an older male that wanted his mother for a mate. You see there, along his sides?”
Elfric looked down. The aged wolf’s flank and belly were seamed with scars. “Terrible. It must have been terrible.”
“Mother did what could be done for him. Then there was nothing left but to wait and see if his natural healing abilities could overcome the wounds. I stayed close to him as much as they let me. It stopped him from howling at night and kept him still, so Mother allowed it more than she would’ve done under other circumstances. It was months before he was back on his feet, but even then, we all knew he wouldn’t survive in the forest. He had no pack, wasn’t strong enough to win his way into a new pack or take over a pack. He would’ve been a lone hunter, and his condition made it certain he wouldn’t succeed on his own. Father made the decision, against my protests, to put Ulf out as a lookout beast.”
“Did you take—” Elfric stopped. Distantly, the plaintive bawling of the bear cub echoed. “I was surprised and forgot,” Elfric said as he rose from his chair. “The cub must have followed me.” He went to the door and stepped outside.
There, walking up the street and looking from side to side, Sanna Taivas came toward him. She held the cub with both her arms around its middle so that it faced away from her. As soon as she noticed Elfric, Taivas brought the cub over. “It wouldn’t stop crying out,” she explained, “so I asked directions and brought it.”
Elfric took the cub in his arms. “Thank you, Sanna Taivas.”
Gisler was already beside him. His attention went first to the cub. “Handsome little fellow, for a runt,” he remarked. “You’ve taken good care of him.” Then he turned his focus toward Taivas. “Gisler Tarbengar, Elfric’s oldest brother.”
“Sanna Taivas,” she replied, “one of Elfric’s classmates.”
“How were you able to pick the cub up,” Elfric asked, “when everyone else alarmed it so?”
“I don’t know, really. It seemed uncomfortable when I approached, but not afraid.”
Gisler said, “Pardon me, Miss Taivas.” He leaned close to her and sniffed her. Then he touched her cheek briefly. “You have a very low body temperature. I’m guessing that’s why you give off such a faint scent. The cub probably wasn’t sure if you were human or not.”
“And you’ve brought it food once or twice,” Elfric mused. “It associates you with food.”
Sanna looked from Elfric to Gisler and back. She seemed more amused than anything. “I won’t interrupt your reunion any longer.” She bowed slightly and walked away.
When they were back inside the cabin, Gisler asked, “Is she your girl?”
Elfric shook his head. “Taivas is a good, devout woman, but she fights like a man. I respect her, but I’d rather find a more feminine girl.”
“There speaks a true West Territory man,” Gisler laughed. He resumed his place, and Elfric sat by the fire again. Merle was all curiosity about the cub and licked it repeatedly. “To get back to my story,” Gisler said, “I didn’t like having Ulf tethered alone on the lookout line. I had got attached and was worried that such a weakened pup would be the first to be attacked, should the Decay come. But I didn’t want to disobey Father’s word, so I did what I thought was a good compromise and spent all of my free hours on the lookout line beside Ulf. I even slept out there, guarding him and providing him with the company he needed.”
“That doesn’t sound like a reason for you to be expelled,” Elfric noted.
“You’d think so, but this happened during a time when the old controversy about Crow Woman was flaring up again. The elders were all for clearing out anything that savored of her heresy, and my attachment to Ulf did just that. Father scolded me, demanded I stop. I, being young and foolish, argued that nothing I was doing violated the statutes or the teachings. I was right, but that wasn’t the point. It didn’t matter if I was keeping within the Only One’s will. It just mattered that the elders hated what I was doing. I was expelled for practicing according to the Crow Woman heresy, and I went to Fortress to start my life over again.”
“But how did you decide to come here?”
“I took Ulf when I left,” Gisler said. “I wouldn’t leave him there as bait. When one of the elders made his annual trip to the capital that fall, he happened to see me when I was playing with Ulf in a public park there. He made an outcry, denouncing me as a heretic, and he and his sons started to beat Ulf and me. It caused such a commotion that I got arrested for disturbing the peace and for assault, though I was the one attacked first. It happened that Father Locke was coming into Fortress a few days after that. They brought my case before him for discipline. He’s a just and reasonable man, unswayed by the hysteria of a few, so at my interview with him I was able to tell my side of the story. He assigned me here, to the Zenith ranger company, as my punishment. A delightful punishment it has been,” Gisler said with a crooked grin. “He even saw to it that Ulf was sent with me.”
Elfric sat back in his chair, stunned beyond speech for a few minutes. His first words, when he had gathered himself, were these: “Who was he? Who was the elder who accused you falsely?”
“I won’t tell you,” Gisler replied without hesitation. “I won’t have ill will spread on my account. I just told you so that you understood why I haven’t been able to come to you in all this time.”
Only half-hearing this, Elfric continued, “And how could Father stand for it, this blatant injustice, this willful opposition to the statutes by those who ought to be our models of piety? How could he abandon you like that? You’re a good son, a good brother.”
“And this is why I never wrote,” Gisler sighed. “Elfric, listen to me. Father made his choice according to what he believed to be best. Whether it was best or not, whether it was just the least bad out of a range of bad choices, I won’t try to judge. If he had stood against the elders then, the whole family would have been expelled. How was he to provide for a wife and eight underaged children, even with my help, with his property and public character taken from him? No, I can’t blame him for keeping silent. I only worried about you, you being who you are. And now I owe Father Locke twofold, first for settling me in a brighter and a fairer place and now for taking you out into the world for a broader view of life. I’m happy as I am.”
Elfric gazed helplessly at his brother. “I don’t know what I can say,” he said.
“You’ve had your assumptions shaken, and that takes time to sort out, I know, but I’d be happy just to have you say you’re glad to see me again after all these years,” suggested Gisler.
“I am, I’m very glad,” said Elfric. “I missed you. A lot of the light went out of our house after you left.”
Gisler blinked rapidly and turned his face to one side. With visible effort, he regained his composure. “Let me show you around town. Do you know anything about Sawtooth Ridge yet?”
“Some. It’s an army town, centered around the supply depot. No satellite villages, just a scattering of independent ranches and farms up and down the mountains,” Elfric recited. “It ranks sixth out of the nine regions for military action. Its armed force consists of three ranger units, each fifty members strong. There’s a town marshal who provides law enforcement within the town limits… and that’s all I can remember offhand,” he admitted.
“Head knowledge,” Gisler said. “Let’s go get you some practical experience!” He stood and added, “Bring the cub. Are you going to name him?”
“I…” Elfric stopped himself. Coming so soon after his brother’s story, the question seemed to hold a hidden layer of meaning. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t know what my own future will hold, let alone whether I can keep this cub.”
“You can name him even without keeping him,” said Gisler as they strolled out into the thin, bright sunshine. “It’s only a way to show that you care what becomes of him. Even if he should one day be strong enough to return to the forest, the name will stand as a bond between you. We were told to name the beasts, back at the first.”
“To name what they are,” Elfric said, “not to give each a personal name.”
“Who knows? But folks have named their animals for so long, I can’t help believing there’s more to it than just saying, ‘You’re a black bear,'” Gisler replied, smiling broadly.
They wandered the town, up one street and down, chatting all the way. Gisler was just as talkative as Elfric remembered. Everyone they met seemed acquainted with him. The few young women whom they encountered flirted with Gisler, but he for his part was simply polite and amiable. After a while of watching these things, Elfric asked, “Since this is your home now, have you never thought of marrying?”
Gisler said, “I’ve thought about it, but it doesn’t set right with me, not being able to present a girl to Father and Mother for their blessing, so I decided to just hold back for the time being.”
“Hey, Grizz,” a man shouted from across the street, “is this the brother?”
Gisler hurried Elfric toward the man. “Sergeant, this is my youngest brother Elfric. Elfric, this is my good friend Sergeant Boris Leonti. He’s the comm officer for Zenith company.”
“Good to meet you at last, Elfric Tarbengar,” the sergeant announced as he shook Elfric’s hand. Leonti was more than a full head shorter than Elfric, built compactly, with a sun-browned face and blue eyes. “We’ve heard nothing but little brother, little brother since the message came through that Father Locke was on his way here. But I must say, you’re quite the big little brother.” He examined Elfric from face to boots with a cursory glance. “I don’t know why I expected something smaller. Grizz is such a bear of a man, I should’ve known. You have sisters, don’t you? Are they as big as you?”
“Rosine, our eldest sister, she’s as tall as me,” Elfric said, “but only half as heavy. Still, she can wrestle a yearling colt to the ground and hold it for Mother to give it an injection.”
“I believe it,” said Leonti. “I’d like to meet her someday. Is that your only sister?”
“No. There’s Heidel, who’s twenty-three and of a weak constitution. She’s only this tall,” Elfric held his hand at shoulder level, “and handles only the medium-sized and small animals. And Berga, she’s twenty now, she weighs about as much as me but only stands this tall,” he held his hand at the level of his collarbone. “She’s the only one of us who doesn’t have animal sympathy. She takes care of the housework and the garden.”
Leonti glanced at Gisler. “That isn’t anything like what you said.”
“I haven’t seen them in ten years, Sarge, be fair,” Gisler laughed. “Elfric, want to look around the offices of Zenith? Corral and stables are in the back.” So they spent more than two hours with the horses that were Zenith ranger company’s main mode of transport out on patrol. Elfric was even conscripted into helping exercise them. “We’re off-duty right now,” Gisler explained as they rode, “so the horses don’t get as much of a workout as they’re used to.”
“Don’t get too carried away and lose track of time,” shouted Leonti from the fence. “You still need to clean up for the concert and social, or Captain Anzor will skin you alive and hang your tanned hide on her office wall.”
“Concert?” Elfric said.
“And social,” his brother confirmed. “To welcome Father and Mother Locke and their companies. I sing bass in the Army men’s chorus.”
Just before sundown, then, Gisler delivered Elfric to the hostel where Lieutenant Jock Knox received him with the words, “Tarbengar, you have fifteen minutes to wash and change into your best clothes. Father Locke wants all of you back here in the foyer, ready to go, at 1745. Concert begins at 1800.” He told him which room was his and sent him off.
Cooper was at the mirror, combing his hair, when Tarbengar entered. “Welcome, roommate,” the undersized capital boy greeted him. “Cutting the time a bit close, aren’t you?”
There was an en suite shower, so Elfric stripped, scrubbed, dried off, and came out with his towel around his waist to find his clothes already hung in the wardrobe next to Cooper’s. “Did you do this for me?”
“You looked busy,” said Cooper, demurring.
Elfric dressed in the suit he had brought for special occasions. With a quick comb and a check in the mirror, he said, “Let’s get down to the foyer. It’s nearly time.”
Father Locke and his four staff officers were present in full dress uniform when Elfric and Cooper arrived. Mother Locke appeared almost at the same time as the boys. She wore a high-necked formal gown and rested her hand on the right forearm of Mica Locke while her daughter rested a hand on Locke’s other arm. “Not in uniform this evening?” Dr. Rao asked Mother Locke. “You look charming.”
“This is a signal,” said Father Locke, “that she wants to dance with me at the social tonight.” He reached out a hand to transfer his wife from his son’s arm to his own.
The rest of the students gathered soon after. They followed Father Locke outdoors into the main street. All manner of trucks and lesser passenger vehicles were pulling into town, decanting women in staid formal dresses and men in suits. Even the children were dressed as for a holiday. “The ranches and farms in this territory,” Lieutenant Jock said aloud, “are fairly isolated places. Whenever any sort of festivity or celebration is held, people will drive distances to attend.”
“And always in their finest clothes,” Father Locke added, “although this pales compared to the party garb adopted by the people of Current-town. They go for color, color, and more color.”
The windows of the public meeting house shone in the dusk. It was about as big as the main public meeting house in Cavern, but instead of being divided into main chamber and side alcoves, this one was all open with hundreds of seats. Most of the forward seats were occupied already. The usher guided Father and Mother Locke forward to a reserved section with seats enough for everyone in their group. The chatter of the crowd echoed off the high-beamed ceiling, amplifying every voice. As a woman stepped out onto the front platform, however, a sudden silence fell. The woman did not introduce herself, saying only, “In honor of the arrival of Father Everard Locke and Mother Coralie Locke, we present the Zenith Company section of the Army Men’s Chorus.” She took the last remaining seat in the front row as two columns of fifteen men trooped down the center aisle.
Elfric saw Gisler in the second row easily, since Gisler towered over the rest. Then one man from the front row began to sing in a clear, strong, unaccompanied tenor. Without any instrumental accompaniment, the chorus presented song after song, from stern hymns to sentimental ballads to lullabies. The crowded meeting hall remained breathless and attentive until the chorus finished the last song. Then their applause was enthusiastic, lasting long after the men trooped out in their two columns of fifteen.
“Hearing them in person,” said the elderly lady who belonged to Taivas’ family, “is much more awe-inspiring than listening to them on the radio.”
“Powerful,” agreed Lieutenant Jock Knox.
The members of the crowd, once they stopped applauding, began to drift out into the night. Father Knox said, “The social is held next door. It will be a good opportunity for all of you to make the acquaintance of the local ranchers. If Polestar Company were off-duty, I would use the opportunity to introduce you to Major D. A. Kirill, Sanna. She will be the commanding officer assigned to supervise you while you’re here. They are still on duty, however.” He continued to talk with Taivas as he led the rest of the group out into the chilled night air.
Next door turned out to be an army training facility. Its primary gym had been transformed into a ballroom for the evening. Even more people crowded into the makeshift ballroom than had squeezed into the public meeting house for the concert. Gisler plowed through the press to reach Elfric. “Did you like it?”
Elfric nodded. He had to raise his voice to make his judgment heard. “You sang well, brother, all of you. It was impressive!”
“Everyone around here sings,” Gisler shouted back. “Whether they can or not, everyone sings.”
At his elbow, Sergeant Leonti yelled, “But not everyone gets accepted into one of the official choruses. Don’t let Grizz be modest, little brother.”
The general tendency of the crowd, although muddled, was to flow toward a set of double doors in the back of the ballroom. Swept along by the flow, Elfric found himself emerging into another gym, only slightly smaller than the first, set up as a buffet. Elfric was hungry. He joined the stream of bodies lining up at the buffet, with Leonti ahead of him and Gisler behind him.
“Sarge,” said a young man behind Gisler, “it has been a while! You don’t come to tea anymore.”
“Go soak your head, Demyan,” retorted Leonti. “If you were still a trainee, I would take you out up to the ridge and leave you there and see how long it took until you cried like a baby.”
The young man just laughed. “Don’t be sore, Sarge. You’re better off as you are, anyways. You’ll find someone that suits you.”
Elfric was glad to see the buffet stocked with good, hearty food and drink. He filled two plates and then followed Sergeant Leonti to a table. “He is right, Sarge,” Gisler said. “She doesn’t suit you.”
“I know,” said Leonti irritably, “it’s that smug attitude of his that gets me. Having a good laugh at my expense.”
“She is too young for you,” Gisler pointed out reasonably.
“Who are you talking about?” Elfric asked.
Gisler jabbed his spoon in the direction of a crowd of youths, predominantly male, who clustered nearer the double doors. “See the girl in dark blue? Irina Demyan. She just came eligible for courting a year back, and already she’s the most popular girl in the territory.”
“She’s beautiful,” Elfric admitted as he gazed, stricken, at the chestnut-haired girl.
“No doubt about that,” his brother agreed. “Look at them all, drawn close to her like bees to nectar.”
“Like flies to dung,” said Leonti darkly.
Gisler shook his head. “Don’t be vengeful, Sarge. You’re just mad because she turned you down. Like Tim said, you’re better off. There’s lots more suitable women around. You only went after her because she has a pretty face and a lively way about her. Like most of those boys.” He tipped his head toward the swarming young men. “See? Not a quarter of an hour, and already she made a conquest of some of your classmates, Elfric.”
Elfric sighed to see Cooper and Tate already hovering around the edges of the girl’s crowd of admirers.
“You,” Leonti said, “you aren’t tempted?”
Elfric looked to him in surprise. He shook his head. “She is beautiful, but she encourages that much male attention. It makes me wary.”
“As it ought,” Leonti said, and slapped Elfric’s shoulder. “I like your little brother, Grizz. He has a wise head on him.”