Tokara Deldano eyed the leather-bound tome resting in her mother's lap. The girl had seen the dusty book before, high on the shelf and out of reach. Is Momma going to read to us? She pressed her lips together, trying to suppress the squeal of joy building up inside.
They had retired to the castle's solar, the place where the whole family usually spent winter evenings playing board games or cards. Unfortunately, her father and brothers were away for the evening.
Despite the early hour, it was already dark, and — even though it was well before her own bedtime — Tokara felt tired and chilled to the bone. Caia, who was four years younger than Tokara, had started yawning before the pudding had been served and was half-asleep by the time they had climbed the tower stairs to the solar. The relentless harsh winds and weeks of icy temperatures were taking their toll on everybody.
Tokara let her eyes drift over the solar, her favorite room in the castle. Intricate tapestries lined all four stone walls. Her mother had brought the hanging pieces from a faraway land only last fall. Enormous, they depicted faerie stories and tales of magical beasts that made Tokara's imagination tumble.
The room's chilly stone floors had been layered with plush rugs, which created a spongy cushion for her every step, but this evening she'd pulled on two pairs of knitted socks before cramming her feet into her sheepskin-lined house boots. Leaning slightly forward on the stuffed leather hassock, she wiggled her toes, grateful for the arched fireplace so big that it could fit a team of pack mules. Fed throughout the day and evening, the fire kept the solar toasty and drove away the dampness.
Tokara turned her back to the fireplace, enjoying the warmth that spread from her lower back to her shoulder blades. She was glad her mother would not be traveling again until spring. Home was always merry for the Deldano children but never as merry as when their mother returned from one of her long voyages. Tokara also noted happily that her mother's tremendous desk was bare. The farmers' tithes had been collected after harvest, and the annual review of the estate and the Deldano lands had been concluded in time for the midwinter feast. According to tradition, the family would soon bring solstice gifts to the inhabitants of the Chain and the farms that surrounded the villages. Tokara always looked forward to the village celebrations and the feast that would follow at the castle.
As an early present, her father had taken both of her brothers ice fishing on Garganey Lake. Tokara shivered to think just how cold her father and the twins would be on this long and starless night. While she liked fishing, she was happy to have stayed behind. Her mother traveled so often throughout the year that having her home was solstice prize enough for Tokara.
The flames in the fireplace jumped up and sent a pleasant blast of warmth up her spine. Tokara looked over at little Caia. The six-year-old lay contently curled on the thick lambskin rugs, nestled between the family's five hunting dogs. Caia and the dogs were fast asleep; the youngest, a seventy-pound monster of a six-month-old puppy, snored in Caia's tightly wound grasp.
"I think Howler belongs to Caia," her mother said softly. "He's taken to her."
Tokara nodded firmly. She longed to pet the pup's short velvety coat but kept her hands to herself.
"You don't mind?" Her mother turned her bright and penetrating gaze on her.
"A little." Tokara could never lie to her parents. "I thought Howler would be my special dog." She shifted her body and leaned toward the leather chair to be closer to her mother.
Dressed in warm robes that brought out the green of her eyes, her honey-blond curls loose around her shoulders, Kadana Deldano looked far less commanding than usual.
Tokara loved these rare moments when her mother was relaxed and completely present. She admired her mother greatly, but at times like this, Tokara's heart swelled with adoration as well. Momma is the most beautiful woman in the world.
"Why did you think that?" Her mother wasn't searching for a specific answer; she just wanted to know the truth.
"Well, I thought, since Fergus and Liam and Becca and Rawley are twins, they obviously belong to our twins." Tokara thought about how one of each of the hound twins had sought out one of her twin brothers to follow around and worship. "Fergus and Becca are always with Rask. And Liam and Rawley can't wait for Reeve to play with them, even though they are really working dogs."
"You noticed the dogs didn't go ice fishing with the Rask and Reeve?" her mother pointed out with a smirk. "The dogs stayed here where it's warm."
Tokara nodded, aware. "I thought when Daddy brought home a puppy this summer, that it would be my puppy. Because I'm next in line."
"I see why you might think that."
"But Caia loves Howler. Can't sleep without him." Tokara spoke from experience. "He's a baby, and she's our baby. So, it all does make a lot of sense."
"You sound very grown up, my sweet girl." Her mother put her hand on the leather tome. "The giants of the earth could learn from you." She smiled. "Did I ever tell you the story of Straakhan . . . and Bumpus?"
Tokara leaned against the overstuffed arm of the chair. "I don't know that story, Momma."
Kadana opened the great book to the middle and began to flip pages, searching for the story. The leather binding brushed softly against her woolen robes.
Tokara held her breath. Her mother didn't often take time to read to them. Far more often she'd take her children hunting or run them through sword drills or archery practice. Under her mother's strict tutelage, Tokara had learned to ride a pony when she was only three. Story time was more the realm of her father and sometimes the Melian relatives on the rare occasions they visited.
Kadana carefully shifted the book, folding out a longer page to three times its length. The rustling of paper caught Howler's attention. The puppy raised his copper head, looked around the room, bleary-eyed, and gave a hearty yawn. Then he settled back down and rested the full weight of his head on Caia's shoulder. The little girl didn't stir.
"In days long ago . . ." The story began the traditional way. "Straakhan built his castle in the impenetrable forest of—"
"Is it our castle, Momma?" Tokara thought she already knew the answer.
"Yes, this is the castle Straakhan built," her mother confirmed.
Tokara sighed. "A castle built by one of the giants of Imlidral. . ." She let the mystery of it hang in the air.
"Straakhan wasn't just one of the giants of Imlidral, you know. The blood of the faerie coursed through him as well," her mother went on. "And once, when the days were short and the nights were long, Straakhan left his castle to search for a companion.
"He didn't like spending time with the other giants. But he had grown weary of being alone. So, he sought new company." Her mother looked up from her book. "What kind of companion do you think he found?"
"Wouldn't he seek a human companion?" Tokara asked. "A friend?"
"Remember, this was in days long ago," her mother said. "So long ago that there were no humans."
Tokara considered. "Was it a cat?" she asked, finally. "A mighty, fierce cat like Tormy?" She'd never met the talking cat, which was rumored to be the size of a pony, but the stories told of Omen and Tormy's adventures were fantastical and amazing. She wondered if they were all true.
"I don't know if Straakhan knew about Tormy's kin," her mother said. "I've never heard stories of such cats before."
"My third guess . . ." Tokara looked at the pile of dogs. "My third guess is that he sought the company of a dog."
"He would have, my dearest." Her mother flipped the pages of the book. "But in those days so long ago, there were no dogs."
"No dogs, Momma?" Tokara set her lips to a pout. "Dogs have always been. Haven't they?"
"Nothing has always been." Kadana tapped the page.
The story wasn't going the way Tokara had expected. Her lips trembled slightly, questions dancing through her head like snowflakes caught up in an unexpected gust. "Did Straakhan ever find a pet?" she asked finally.
"Not a pet," her mother corrected. "A companion. There's a big difference."
"Did he find a companion, Momma?"
"Straakhan went out into the forest. In the deepest, darkest part of the woods, he saw a great beast. The creature was so large and so fierce, he dared not approach it, but he watched its movements for many days.
"It was mighty indeed: large jaws filled with fearsome, snapping teeth; fat paws round as stones with claws drawn out and sharp; a coat as brown as the earth and as thick and long as pine needles. When it roared, the trees trembled and the moon hid behind the sun.
"The creature holed up in a cave for a long time, and Straakhan lay in wait, his patience growing thin. When the mighty one emerged from the cave again, Straakhan knew the wait had been worth it.
"With her, for Straakhan learned then that the creature was a female, were four little ones of her kind. Three were brown like their mother, but one — the largest — was white as milk and had eyes blue as the sky at noon.
"Over many months of waiting and watching, Straakhan won the trust of the mother. He brought her food, watched over the cubs, and protected them from enemies. A season passed, and the cubs grew.
"One day, the family moved on while Straakhan slept. He woke to find them gone and the cave empty. His heart was broken, for he had come to love them all.
"But as he turned away, knowing he would have to return to his empty castle all alone, the snowy white youngling with the blue eyes came to his side.
"He named him Bumpus."
"Bumpus is a funny name," Tokara interrupted.
"Bumpus is a funny name, and Straakhan was delighted by his funny companion."
"Was Bumpus a good companion?"
"The very best, most loyal companion. Bumpus grew to be incredibly big and strong. His long coat was white in winter and golden in summer. Bumpus followed Straakhan everywhere, like a puppy."
"Is there a picture in the book?" Tokara asked impetuously.
Her mother stiffened slightly, but she turned the book so Tokara could study the folded-out page.
The parchment was brittle but the picture seemed fresh, nearly gleaming. A tall, handsome man in leathers stood next to an enormous creature Tokara thought looked like both a wolf and a bear.
"Is that Bumpus?" she asked, pointing her finger at the white wolf-bear. "His neck is thick; his legs are like tree stumps; his jaw is round like a bear's, but everything else about him is like a wolf. And he walks on four feet."
Her mother nodded. "And don't forget, Straakhan was a giant. So Bumpus is much larger than a regular wolf standing next to a regular man."
Tokara thought that Straakhan in the painting was nearly as handsome as her oldest brother. "Straakhan looks a lot like Beren," she said absently.
Her mother chuckled softly.
"I don't recognize this language, Momma." Tokara tilted her head to look at the odd letters, which appeared to her as if a chicken had danced across the page.
"The writing is very, very old," her mother said. "Don't worry. You won't have to learn it."
Tokara wanted to hear more, but a powerful yawn took hold of her. She quickly flung her hands to her face to cover her mouth.
"Straakhan and Bumpus were the best of companions. They traveled the world and had many adventures." Her mother closed the book, stifling a yawn of her own. "It's getting to be bedtime, for all of us."
"Were Bumpus and Straakhan companions forever?" Tokara hoped to draw out the tale.
"Not forever, my sweet." Her mother returned the book to the side table.
Though afraid to hear more, Tokara couldn't stop herself from asking. "What happened?" she whispered anxiously.
A sad smile played on her mother's lips. "What always happens. When it was time for Bumpus to pass, Straakhan wouldn't accept it. Straakhan, through his faerie blood, was immortal. He wanted his companion to be immortal as well."
"And that couldn't happen." Tokara felt a lump form in her throat.
"Oh no, Tokara." Her mother took a deep breath. "It did happen. Straakhan railed against the gods and nature. He found a way to make Bumpus immortal."
"But then everything was all right." Tokara didn't understand why her mother had made it seem like the story's end would be sad.
"Straakhan made a lot of enemies in his quest to make Bumpus immortal. He defied many powerful immortals and put worlds in danger. He cared for nothing but obtaining his goal. Straakhan got what he wanted. But not the way he wanted it.
"Once Bumpus was immortal like Straakhan, the powerful ones he had offended punished Straakhan. They banished him to a solitary realm, a place that could only hold one immortal at a time. If a second immortal joined him there, they would both be torn apart, splintered into the tiniest bits of energy and pure power. Destroyed for eternity.
"If Bumpus hadn't been immortal, he would have been able to join Straakhan in his exile. The very gift of immortality held them apart, will hold them apart for all eternity."
Tokara's eyes stung. "What happened to Bumpus?"
"Bumpus was left all alone. His family long dead, none of his kind walked the earth."
Tokara frowned. "This is only a story, right Momma?"
Her mother tilted her head. "This happened in days so long ago, it might as well be called 'only a story.' But I want you to think of the responsibility that comes with gaining a companion. Straakhan ruined himself for the love of Bumpus, and his heart breaks every day anew."
Tokara looked over at Caia snuggling closer to Howler. "So, is it bad to have a companion? Does it always end in sadness? If it's like that, I don't think I want one."
"My little philosopher," her mother said. "You have to live and love wherever your heart takes you. And sometimes love of another takes you down a thorny path. That is life."
Tokara looked at her mother's smiling face and the cozy dog pile, her sister at its center. "Life is beautiful and cruel then."
"Let's get you girls ready for bed," her mother said. She scooped Caia from the rug, lifting the sleeping girl as if she weighed less than a feather.
Howler, stretching and yawing, padded out of the room after them.
Tokara's eyes fell on the leather tome. Impulsively, she picked it up from the table and followed her mother and sister to the sleeping chambers.