Heavy footsteps treading up the dirt path, the gentle turn of the knob and the creak of the door opening. A muted sigh as dirty boots were kicked off and tucked beneath the bench. Uli knew those welcome sounds even deep in sleep and smiled as she opened bleary eyes. She covered her yawning mouth with one hand, her back aching from having fallen asleep in the rocking chair with a quilt around her shoulders. It took longer than necessary to rise and shuffle into the kitchen where she found her husband stoking the fire beneath the stove, which seemed to have burned down while she slept. Rusl glanced up, a smile warming his rugged features.
"I forgot about the tea," Uli mumbled, though another yawn prevented her from showing proper dismay.
"Don't worry, I rescued it," Rusl assured her. In minutes the kettle was reheated and he poured two mugs, nudging one toward her as she took a seat. Uli cupped the mug in both hands and breathed in the steam in appreciation. Rusl groaned as he dropped into the chair across from her and downed his own tea in a few gulps. Uli reached across the table to stroke his white fingers, shivering at the chill of his skin from spending an entire day and half the night out in the woods. And with winter coming on too, she thought with an inward shake of her head. Her husband truly had the heart of a huntsman. Nothing short of a blizzard could drive him indoors, not when there were beasts to track and fish to catch. Rusl smiled again, rueful as if he had read her thoughts, but his gaze wandered in the direction of their bedroom.
"Colin is asleep," Uli told him. "And don't you dare wake him with your freezing hands. He's been colicky all evening. I only just got him down a little while ago."
Rusl murmured over his mug in sympathy. "Poor baby."
Uli tilted her head shrewdly. "Him or me?"
"Both, of course," Rusl said with a chuckle. "Sorry, I meant to be home sooner. But..."
He hesitated, and Uli woke up a little more at the look on his face, a gentle and almost secretive smile that piqued her curiosity. "Rusl? What is it?"
Gray eyes flicked up to hers, and his smile became a full-blown grin. He set down his mug and cradled her hands with both of his. "You'll never believe me if I tell you," he teased.
"I believe anything you tell me," Uli said, only half teasing. "Darling, you want to tell me. I can see it in your eyes."
"Well," Rusl began, still hesitant. "Something...happened out in the woods today. Something that I can't really explain because I don't understand it myself. I went deeper than I usually do, farther south and west, and while I was out there, I spotted a wolf standing up on a high outcropping. It was the most magnificent beast I've ever seen, Uli. Bigger than you can imagine, and it had all this sleek golden fur that just shone in the sunlight."
"A golden wolf?" Uli said in quiet amazement. "I've never heard of a wolf with that coloring."
"Which is why I started tracking it," Rusl said, and her open alarm seemed to amuse him. "What? You did say you wanted a new cloak before the weather turns. And there would've been plenty of hide left over to make a blanket for Colin."
"But...a wolf," Uli said fretfully. "You told me yourself that lone wolves are unpredictable. It could have attacked you!"
"I had to follow it," Rusl said with a strange note in his voice. He leaned forward earnestly. "I just...I had to know where it was heading. I told you, I can't explain it. It's like the wolf knew and was leading me on purpose, always staying just out of range of my bow. I lost sight of it after awhile and couldn't find its tracks...but by then I was at this cave I'd never seen before. And when I went to take a closer look..."
He paused again, and Uli found herself holding her breath, though part of her was beginning to wonder if this wasn't an elaborate story meant to pull her leg. But there was nothing but sincerity in his eyes when Rusl continued the story.
"...there was a boy inside the cave."
"A boy?" Uli repeated, taken aback.
Rusl nodded. "I know, I couldn't believe it either. But there he was. Couldn't have been more than four or five years old, covered in dirt and practically skin and bones under his clothes. He didn't say a word when he saw me. He just stared and stared at me with those blue eyes of his. Those eyes were the only part of him I could see, the cave being so dark."
"But what was he doing out there, all alone?" Uli said in concern. Motherhood had made her into a much more emotional creature, sharpened her protective instincts, and she could so clearly picture the boy that Rusl described, sad eyes cutting into her with a painful yearning.
"I think he's been alone for a long time," Rusl said somberly. He glanced aside, expression growing distant and melancholic. "I would've brought him back with me, but the look on his face...he was so afraid. I was worried if I went near him, he'd bolt into the woods and I'd never see him again. So I just sat there and talked to him for what must've been hours. And the whole time he just sat there and listened, almost like he'd forgotten what a human voice sounds like. But even then he still wouldn't come near me, and once the sun started to go down, I had no choice but to leave him. But I left my cloak and told him I'd come back tomorrow. I marked the trees so I'd remember the way."
Uli leaned back in her chair, fascinated and troubled by equal measures. "That poor child," she whispered. She could only imagine that something terrible must have happened to put him in that state. And she couldn't fathom why the boy would fear Rusl, of all people. This was the same man who could coax Sera's bad-tempered cat from a hissing tornado into a purring puddle.
"It was a guardian spirit," Rusl said suddenly. "The wolf, I mean. It had to be. To lead me there the way it did, yet leave no trace of its passage...the gods wanted me to find that boy, I'm sure of it."
"If only you could have brought him back with you," Uli murmured, sipping at her tea without tasting it. She glanced at the window as the wind howled and made the shutters tremble. "I hope nothing happens to him. It's been so cold, and the snow might come any day..."
"If he's been out there for as long as I think he has, then he's probably learned a thing or two on how to survive," Rusl said in reassurance, but his own worry was visible. "I'll go out tomorrow and try again. Maybe if I take him something to eat, it'll make him a little less afraid."
"What does a wolf boy eat?" Uli wondered aloud.
Rusl shrugged. "I could try milk," he joked. "All kids like milk, right?"
Back in their bedroom, Colin began to whimper and cry. Uli sighed and fixed Rusl with a look of mild accusation. "You said the M word," she said flatly.
"So I did," Rusl said, wincing in contrition. "Forgive me, Uli, I am not worthy of you. Shall I go fall on my sword now?"
"No, come and keep me company," Uli said with a laugh and took his hand to draw him to his feet. Colin's whimpers became more needy when he heard them approaching, then quieted once Uli took him from the cradle and let him nurse, shushing him softly. Rusl sank onto the mattress behind her and wrapped his arm around her waist, sighing against her shoulder as they both gazed down at their infant son. But every so often his eyes would drift to the window and the dark night outside, and Uli knew there was more than one child on his mind.
Rusl left early the next morning to search for the wolf boy again, armed with another cloak and a satchel full of water and food. He even dropped by Sera's Sundries for a bottle of milk before he set out, and Uli settled herself in for a long day of waiting, her mind always elsewhere even as she busied herself with Colin. It was a lazy sort of day with few chores to fill the hours, so she paid a visit to Pergie and her baby boy, Talo, finding that the two of them had much more in common now since they had both become new mothers at nearly the same time.
But soon the shadows deepened as the sun sank lower, and it was time to return home and wait for Rusl. Uli found herself making little preparations, taking out extra blankets and setting another place at the table, lamenting that they had no clothing that would fit a young boy. Then she wondered if the boy even spoke their language. Ordon was nestled directly at the border of Hyrule, and it was possible the boy had come from an unknown land somewhere south beyond the forest. Maybe he would find their entire way of life strange to him and would only be more frightened if she made a fuss.
The front door opened right in the middle of her thoughts, and Uli jumped up from the rocking chair, nervous energy making her wring her hands. But Rusl came inside alone, his downcast expression telling her enough. The cave had been empty. He had searched the surrounding forest, but aside from his missing cloak, there had been no sign of the boy. It was the same the next day, and the next day too, and all the days afterward. It quickly became a routine to see her husband leave each morning with renewed determination and then return that evening with the same crestfallen look. By the time a week had passed, Uli could tell even Rusl was beginning to wonder if there had been a boy at all.
"I know he was real," Rusl whispered to her one night as they lay in bed together, huddled close against the frost that rimmed the windows. "I know what I saw, and it wasn't an illusion or a fever-dream."
"But are you sure it's really a child?" Uli said, hesitant to voice her doubts when Rusl seemed so certain. "You said that wolf you saw must have been a spirit...maybe the boy is one too? If you weren't able to see him very well in the cave..."
But Rusl shook his head. "I know the feeling I got from that wolf. It was definitely not of this world, but it wasn't malevolent either. And why would one spirit lead me to another? No...I was brought to that boy for a reason. I need to find him."
"You will," Uli said, reaching up to stroke the side of his face. "You're a hunter, Rusl. You can find anything that is lost, even if it doesn't want to be found."
Another week passed. And although Rusl still did not see the wolf boy, he returned at night in better spirits to tell Uli that he had seen other signs. Any food he left behind was always gone by the next morning, and some of the marks he had made on the trees had other, cruder markings carved just below them at the height that a child could reach. It wasn't much, but it gave Rusl hope which in turn made Uli glad. She wasn't entirely certain Rusl was right about the gods leading him to this boy, but she hoped one of these evenings would see him return with the child safe in his arms rather than out in the wilds where he could starve or freeze to death or be mauled by a beast or suffer a thousand other terrible fates...
"Honeymoon over, sweetie?"
"Hm?" Uli said, brow furrowed as the comment called her from her thoughts. She looked at Sera, kneeling beside her on the bank of the stream, then back down at the shirt in her hands which she had been mindlessly scrubbing for several minutes. She lifted the sopping fabric from the water, only now noticing the ragged hole she had created. "Oh, drat! This is one of Rusl's favorites!"
"Oh well, I'm sure he's done something to deserve it," Sera chuckled. She went back to wringing out one of the cute dresses she insisted on knitting for her rambunctious two-year-old, even though little Beth much preferred clothes that let her roll in the mud. "I saw him in my shop this morning, you know. He bought another bottle of milk to take with him into the forest. He said he was planning to spend all day out there, again. Is that really alright with you, Uli? Leaving you all alone day in and day out to care for Colin..."
Pergie snorted from Sera's other side where she was keeping an eye on Beth and the two infants in their cradles. "I'm sure Uli would have spoken up if it wasn't alright. But what has he been doing out there? Jaggle's been waiting for him to help stockpile wood before the first snowfall, but he just can't seem to catch him."
"Oh...he's just tracking something," Uli said vaguely. Both she and Rusl had decided to keep the wolf boy their secret until they managed to bring him to the village. "You know how he gets when something eludes him."
"Hmph, tracking something," Sera sniffed. She wagged her eyebrows at both her and Pergie knowingly. "What did I tell you ladies, hm? It's exactly like with me and Hanch! Just after we took our vows, he was so attentive and loving and just the most perfect husband I could ask for. But the instant I became pregnant with Beth, everything changed! All of a sudden he couldn't stay out late enough, and just you try to get him to say two words to me when he did come home."
Pergie shrugged, the corner of her mouth twitching. "Have you considered he only became so timid because you were an absolute beast when you were with child? Not just to him, but to everyone. And even after Beth was born, I recall you shrieking at him not to touch her because he might end up dropping her."
"Bah, he's a man, he can take a scolding," Sera scoffed. "And just you watch, Pergie! Next it'll be your husband not coming home on time, and then you'll be begging me for advice on what to do about it just like Uli is now!"
"Really Sera, you don't need to worry about me," Uli insisted and wondered if it would be rude to gather up her laundry and move farther downstream. "I don't mind looking after Colin while Rusl is out..."
"Now listen to me, Uli," Sera said in a mothering tone, completely oblivious to Uli's discomfort. "I understand how you feel, I know part of you is still swooning for him as the handsome suitor who swept you off your feet. But if you want things in your home to remain peaceful and orderly, then you need to keep your man on a tight leash so he doesn't wander. Make it clear what you expect of him, that you want things done in a certain way and you want him home by a certain time! And if he doesn't listen to you...well then, no second baby!"
Pergie and Uli exchanged a look behind Sera's back and remained prudently silent while the older woman chattered on. Ever since Mayor Bo's beloved wife had passed on, Sera seemed to think herself the head matron of the village and duty-bound to advise the younger women on everything from motherhood to matrimony. And though she was sure Sera meant well, Uli preferred not to take marriage advice from someone who had practically bullied her man to the altar.
Uli jerked in surprise at the familiar voice shouting, and her head snapped up as Rusl came sprinting toward the women from the other side of the village. Sera snorted and set her laundry aside to plant her hands on her hips. "Oh, and speaking of whom...look who came back early today! Your wife has a few choice words for you, mister!"
Uli stood quickly, confused by the frantic way he was waving his arms. "Rusl, what...?"
"Come with me!" Rusl cried, and rather than use the bridge, he splashed across the stream to reach her. "You've got to come right now! Hurry!"
"But the laundry..."
"It can wait! Just hurry!"
"But...oh!" Uli gasped when he seized her wrist and towed her back the way he had come. She looked wildly over her shoulder. "Pergie, Sera! Watch Colin for me please!"
"Take your time!" Sera called with a smug note to her voice, and Uli barely caught her next words to Pergie. "Tee hee, sneaking off into the woods just like when they were courting...how naughty! It looks like the honeymoon isn't quite over yet..."
"Rusl, wait!" Uli called. Her sandals slipped on the grass as she struggled with the uphill climb toward the woods. "What's gotten into you? Where are you taking me?"
"He's here!" Rusl said in excitement. "The boy...our wolf boy, he's here! I saw him just now. He must have followed me back last night!"
"He did?" Uli said, his elation infecting her, and she also broke into a run as they reached the top of the hill and took the path into the woods. They bypassed a decrepit treehouse that had seen better days and the spirit spring of Ordon, then dashed over the bridge spanning the gorge, and only then did Rusl slow down. Uli peered around timidly, keen to meet this strange boy but wary to be so far from the village. She and practically everyone in Ordon avoided the wilderness for fear of becoming lost or being ambushed by monsters, both very real possibilities. Rusl never had that fear for himself, and Uli never dared to brave the woods unless he was with her.
"Over here," Rusl said, panting as he helped her step over a log. When they reached a sunlit clearing, he dropped her hand and hurried to a tree with a hollowed out trunk. But when Rusl knelt down and peered inside, his mood shifted from expectant joy to bewilderment, and then alarm. He straightened and looked at her in panic.
"He...he was just here..."
"He's gone?" Uli said, her own anticipation dwindling away. Rusl immediately began to search the clearing, and Uli helped him, but there weren't many places to look. The trees had mostly lost their leaves by now so no one could hide in the branches, and they checked every shrub and fallen log they could find. Rusl called out a few times, but there was no answer except for the wind and a few songbirds.
Slowly, Uli looked back at her husband, saddened by how upset he seemed. How he stood there with arms stiff at his sides and head bowed, as if he had lost something too precious for words. She took his hand and stroked his arm in silent comfort. "I'm sure he'll come back," she said.
"I don't understand," Rusl whispered. He touched the hollow tree trunk, breathing deeply and letting it gust out. "I told him I'd be right back. I thought he would wait, but...why would he come all this way and then disappear again?"
"Maybe he was frightened of meeting another person," Uli said and couldn't help feeling a little wounded that the boy refused to let himself be seen by her.
Rusl thumped his fist against the tree before he let his hand slide down, turning to her in quiet desperation. "You believe me about him, don't you? You believe that he's real? You know I would never lie about something like this..."
Pushing back her misgivings, Uli nodded. "Of course I believe you. It would be a very poor prank if you had made it up. But...I would like to see this mysterious boy someday. So I can know my husband isn't odd in the head."
"Darling, you knew I was odd in the head when you married me," Rusl chuckled, stepping closer to slide his arms around her waist and steal a kiss from her lips. It was an old joke from when they were young and courting and her parents had highly disapproved of the swordsman who had taken an interest in their daughter. They had firmly believed that any man who spent so much time hunting in solitude must not be in his right mind. But Uli had always understood his heart. Rusl found peace and fulfillment in the woods the way other men found it in their work or their families. He had seen many strange things, but he was never disturbed by those things, and he always came back to her the same gentle and good-humored man that she had fallen in love with.
So if Rusl told her there was a boy running wild in the woods, a child who had been revealed to him by a guardian spirit in the shape of a golden wolf, then she had no reason to doubt him. Uli wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in the crook of his neck, deciding that until she received solid proof otherwise, then she would consider her husband perfectly sane.
"I want you to meet him so badly," Rusl murmured into her hair. "You have a way with children that I just don't. I know that once he meets you, maybe he won't be so afraid to come into the village."
"You have so much faith in me," Uli said with a smile. She leaned back to look into his face. "But if he's really been alone all this time, then maybe seeing so many people is too much for him right now. Why don't we let him be for a little while? We'll go back to the village, and tomorrow you can look for him again."
Rusl sighed and looked out into the woods in yearning. "But what if...?"
"He's come this far already," Uli said in encouragement. "Just give him a little more time. Let him choose to stay on his own."
"Yes...you're right," Rusl said after a moment. Keeping an arm around her shoulders, he began to lead her back toward the village. "He's almost like a wounded animal, the way he acts so skittish around anything with two legs. Part of me just wants to grab him and carry him home, but I don't want to give him any reason to fear us."
Uli made a small noise of agreement. "The poor boy...I wonder what happened to make him so afraid in the first place?"
"I wonder too," Rusl muttered, but he seemed to put it from his mind and grinned at her. "So what was Sera saying when I came running up? Something about you having a few choice words for me?"
Uli laughed and shook her head. "Oh, you know her. She's concocted some theory that our marriage is on the brink of disaster because, as your wife, I haven't been keeping you on a tight enough leash."
"What, you mean like Hanch?" Rusl said with a roll of his eyes. "You know I'd never speak ill of a lady, but she has that man so henpecked that he might as well be tied up in her yard like a pet. I'm so glad you're nothing like her. This mangy dog would go bonkers if he couldn't get outside once in awhile."
"Well, I don't ever plan on becoming like Sera," Uli informed him. "Just as long as you keep coming home to me."
"Even if I wind up bringing a stray pup with me?"
"Yes, even then," Uli promised. Then she blinked and looked up at him in apprehension. "We are still talking about the boy, right?"
Rusl threw his head back and laughed.
Despite both of their hopes, the boy still did not let himself be brought to the village. But now each morning when Rusl set out to hunt, the boy would be waiting for him at the village outskirts and tag along at a distance. And as long as Rusl did not approach him or speak of taking him to the village, then the boy never left his side. Her husband remained patient, letting the trust build in increments, sharing with Uli each little victory when he returned home. It wasn't long before the boy lost some of his wariness and took an active part in the hunts, climbing the trees to spot nearby game, apparently delighting in being helpful. Since he still would not speak, Rusl showed him how to make a whistle out of hawk grass, and from then on that was their signal to each other, yet another way to communicate without words.
It made an adorable picture in Uli's head, Rusl and their wolf boy trekking the woods together, and she wished constantly that she could see it for herself rather than settling for only a secondhand account. But her envy was a weak candle compared to Rusl's happiness each time he returned with a smile on his face and a new adventure to tell her.
"I taught him how to fish today," Rusl said, cheerful even in the midst of his least favorite chore of changing Colin's diaper at the kitchen table. "I suppose taught is a strong word when all I did was bait the pole and then pretend to walk away from it. But it's a good thing I was keeping an eye on him because the second he tossed that line, he somehow hooked this monster of a fish. I had to grab him by his feet to keep him from being dragged underwater. And once we caught it and cooked it over the fire, you should have seen his face when he tasted it! It was like he was tasting chocolate for the first time."
Uli smiled fondly as she sliced up potatoes and onions for the stewpot simmering over the hearth. "It looks like the answer to bringing him home is to fill his stomach first. Tomorrow, I should ask Jaggle for one of his pumpkins so I can bake it into a pie. Do you think our wolf boy would like that?"
"I think the smell alone would make him pass out," Rusl joked. He made a studious grumble as he laid a fidgety Colin out on a clean square of cloth. "How does this thing go on again? No, don't tell me! I'll remember in a moment."
"Take your time," Uli said, secretly amused by the sight of him folding and refolding the cloth diaper with a look of puzzled concentration. She had worried at first that his affection for Colin might wane with another child commanding his attention, but that concern had been very short-lived. Rusl still spent time with Colin and never passed up a chance to care for him and hold him. He adored their son with all his heart...but he was certainly not a baby man in any sense of the word. Uli could tell that Rusl couldn't wait for Colin to be older so he could teach him and bond with him just like he was doing with the wolf boy now.
"I've been thinking about something," Rusl said after a moment. "You know that old treehouse up on the hill near the woods? The one that's practically falling apart?"
"Mmhmm," Uli said, most of her attention on the stewpot. She tasted a spoonful, frowning when it wasn't what she expected. "I think I missed an ingredient in Pergie's recipe...did she say to use thyme or sage?"
"Eh, use them both," Rusl said with a shrug. "Anyway, about that treehouse...I was thinking me and Jaggle might start fixing it up tomorrow. The roof is in the worst condition, but once that's done then draping some curtains across the windows would block out most of the cold."
"But the children aren't even old enough to use it yet," Uli pointed out, but almost at once realized what he was getting at. "Oh! You want to rebuild it for the boy?"
"It might work," Rusl said in optimism. "Give him a place of his own where he's close to the village, but where he can still come and go at his own will. I...I think it's the thought of being trapped that's making him so reluctant. I was talking to him the other day, trying to tell him about how much safer he'd be inside our house at night, but he became so white in the face when I talked about the locks on our doors."
"How strange," Uli murmured, her heart panging. "You don't suppose he's a runaway, do you? Maybe his parents treated him badly and he felt the need to escape?"
"I'm not sure that's it," Rusl said, briefly glancing up at her. "Do you remember a few months back, we heard about that Hylian village to the west that was overrun by bandits? Everyone was killed except the children, who were put in chains and about to be carted out of the kingdom and sold into slavery. The king of Hyrule sent his soldiers to put a stop to it, thankfully...but I'm wondering if, in all that chaos of saving those children, maybe one missing boy went unnoticed."
"You think he's a survivor from that village?" Uli said in shock. "But...Rusl, that was months ago! It was at the beginning of summer when we heard of it!"
"The boy definitely has the look of someone who's been lost in the wilderness for half a year," Rusl said darkly. "And I've seen the scars on his wrists...trust me, he didn't get those from climbing trees. It could explain his fear of being locked up, though how he escaped on his own and wandered all this way, I couldn't say. I'd never credit someone so young with being able to survive that long...unless he was being watched over by a higher power."
"The golden wolf," Uli said, voicing what they were both thinking. She had nearly forgotten about it since Rusl had not seen the spirit since that very first day. Neither of them was any closer to understanding what it was, but it seemed clear that its purpose had been accomplished the moment Rusl laid his eyes on the boy. Uli blinked away tears. "I wish he would speak to us. Or to you, at least. It's so hard to imagine all these terrible things. And...Rusl, what if he has family who survived that attack? They must be so worried about him..."
Rusl dropped his gaze to their baby and returned to his task, clumsily pinning the sides of the diaper in the approximate places Uli had shown him. "I've tried to ask him about his family before, but he just gives me a blank look and shakes his head like he doesn't remember. Or he doesn't want to remember."
"I still wish we could at least know his name," Uli said wistfully. "I wonder if he even remembers that much."
"I've been calling him Link lately," Rusl remarked. "After that renowned swordsman from a few centuries ago. I think he likes it...or at least he seems to prefer it to Rusl Junior."
"Link," Uli said, testing the name on her tongue. She scrunched her nose. "It's such a Hylian name."
"Well, he is Hylian," Rusl pointed out. He stuck in the last pin on the diaper and picked up Colin in triumph. "Ah ha, success!"
Colin made a fussy noise and kicked out his feet, which caused the pins to spring open and the diaper to flutter down on the table. Uli made a sincere effort not to laugh at his confounded look, but a stray giggle slipped through anyway. "You just need to make it a little snugger. Make sure you hold his legs when you're folding it."
"Kid's got a strong kick," Rusl said wryly as he set Colin back down and began his task again. "Are you sure he's really mine? Maybe you had an affair with a Zora while I was out one day."
"Don't be silly, darling," Uli teased and moved closer to kiss his cheek. "You know perfectly well my secret lover is a Goron."
"Now that I could actually see," Rusl said with a shrewd chuckle. "You know I've heard they've got really big—"
"Hearts? Yes, I've heard that too."
"Is there a reason Rusl is so determined to rebuild that old treehouse even when our kids won't be using it for many years to come?"
Uli followed Pergie's gaze to the line of trees where the sounds of sawing and hammering could be heard in the general direction of the village. She shrugged and went back to picking herbs. "Oh, my husband is eccentric," she said loftily.
"I'll say," Pergie chuckled and dropped a handful of herbs into the satchel at her waist. Talo gave a little whimper from his cradle, and Pergie straightened and reached over to sooth him again. "Although eccentric is not the word Jaggle would use. He keeps grumbling about wasted wood and whatnot, but it's not as if they're building the thing from scratch, just making repairs that haven't been done since we all were kids."
Uli made a noise of agreement, smiling as her thoughts drifted back to those distant days. She couldn't remember when the treehouse had been built or by who, but it had been constructed well and sheltered many generations of children beneath its roof. She and Rusl had both played there at one time, taking a tame sort of thrill in being out of sight of the village, though it wasn't really very far at all. Even Ordon's sacred spring was farther away than the treehouse, which was where she and Pergie were now. Although the spring was beyond the village boundaries, it was still considered "safe" because of the magical properties which prevented any harm from befalling those nearby. Not even the wild animals approached, which made it the perfect place for a shared herb garden where no rabbits or squirrels would come to nibble the plants or dig up the seeds.
I wonder if the boy has come close enough to see the spring, Uli thought, that familiar knot of unease and motherly concern making itself known in her belly. Her eyes strayed in the direction of the woods even as her hands worked, wondering, hoping...not that she expected the wolf boy to conveniently appear before her. But still, if Colin hadn't been fast asleep in his cradle right beside her, she might have been tempted to follow the beaten path and cross the bridge into the wilder parts. Not to go far, only to see if he was there or had left any sign...
Movement in the shrubs and the rustle of bare feet on fallen leaves made her heart skip a beat. Uli drew a sharp breath, her pulse beating wildly as a small form skipped into sight from beyond the woods. But the feeling was crushed by disappointment when the humming girl came into sight, her clothes grass-stained and her cropped hair all tangled with leaves and a disheveled mess. Most might have mistaken her for one of the fabled Kokiri at first glance, but Pergie was not fooled as she looked up and scowled at the girl.
"Ilia! Just what do you think you're doing out here by yourself?"
Mayor Bo's daughter jumped at the sharp reprimand, widened eyes the very picture of innocence. Ilia shuffled her filthy feet and guiltily hid a fistful of flowers behind her back. "Uh...just...playing?"
"You know better than to play out of sight of the village," Pergie said sternly. She put her hands on her knees and grunted as she stood. "You know the rules, it was your own father who created the rules. It's dangerous in the woods! There could be monsters, and the weather could take a turn for winter any day now, and here you are without even a cloak or shoes..."
"But it's sunny out now," Ilia grumbled as if that should make it perfectly alright. The girl turned beseeching eyes to Uli, but was only met with further disapproval. Pouting and hanging her head, Ilia trudged back in the direction of the village with all the speed of a slug, the flowers clutched close to her chest.
"Oh no, you don't!" Pergie said sharply, and Ilia paused with a visible wince. The older woman scooped up Talo's cradle and strode over to the girl. "You think I'll let you out of my sight and give you a chance to sneak off again? I know better than that! You're coming with us back to the village and straight to your father, and then you can explain to him what you were doing out here."
"But I like it out here!" Ilia wailed and stomped her foot. "It's so pretty and there are flowers and birds and things, and I've never seen any monsters even when it's night out—"
"You've been out here at night?" Pergie exclaimed. Ilia gasped and clapped her hands over her mouth, incriminating herself more with every moment. Pergie shook her head and gripped her arm firmly. "Well, you can explain that to your father as well. Are you coming, Uli?"
"Ah...you go ahead," Uli said on impulse, not about to pass up the chance to linger near the woods alone. She patted the herb satchel at her waist. "I'll just fill up this up and be right behind you."
"Are you sure?" Pergie said, hesitating. "I know we're not far from the village, but still..."
"I'll be fine," Uli assured her. She straightened up on her knees and waved across the path at the wooden gates and the golden waters beyond. "The sacred spring is right there. If anything comes from the woods, I can go inside and close the gate."
"Yes, and just watch Rusl go rabid wolf on me if that happens," Pergie chuckled, but she set off for the village with Talo in one hand and Ilia in the other, flatly ignoring the girl's complaints about unfairness and why does Aunt Uli get to stay and I don't? Uli shook her head and returned to picking herbs, grateful to all the gods that she had not given birth to a daughter. She was positive that neither she nor Rusl would have had the slightest idea what to do with a girl.
The rustling leaves caught her attention first, so soft that she thought it was the wind at first. Except there was no wind, nor any sounds at all. The songbirds and crickets had all fallen silent at once. Uli raised her head and scanned her surroundings warily, a chill crawling up the back of her neck at the unnatural hush. After taking a quick peek at Colin to be sure he still slept, she stood and moved a few paces away, still searching for the source of...whatever she had sensed a moment ago.
"Hello? Pergie, is that you? Ilia?"
No voices answered her. Uli rubbed her arms nervously and thought of the hawk grass planted nearby. Not that the bird would be much protection against a truly ferocious predator, but its presence perched near at hand would make her feel better. And it must be a predator to make all the forest creatures go into hiding at once. All of a sudden, staying out here alone with Colin seemed like a terrible idea. Uli turned back toward the cradle to pick it up...and she cried out, hands flying to her mouth in terror. The luminous wolf hardly reacted to her cry, its curious gaze intent upon the cradle and the sleeping baby inside. Rusl had been completely right about its spiritual origins. Its paws made no sound on the grass and fallen leaves, its form fluid and weightless in a way an ordinary wolf could never be. The dappled sunlight on its fur caused the golden strands to shine with a light all their own, and she had a feeling that in full sunlight the spirit would be blinding to behold.
But what does it want with Colin? Uli though, torn between reverence and panic. She stood there petrified, a scream locked in her throat as the wolf continued to look down at her son. There was nothing at all threatening in the way it acted, but her mind couldn't help but flash back to all the stories of dark specters who spirited children away in the night and transformed them into Stalchildren. Maybe that was what the wolf boy was, maybe she and Rusl had been completely wrong to trust this beast.
The wolf raised its head and transfixed her with a singular red eye. She couldn't recall Rusl saying whether the wolf had only possessed one eye or not. Uli shivered, unable to look away. Its gaze almost seemed to pierce right through her, not quite judging, but more...appraising. She tensed when the wolf growled low in its throat, ready to throw herself at the beast if that was what it took to save Colin. But in that same moment, the wolf turned and loped away into the shadowed forest. As if whatever business had called it here was concluded now and it had no reason to stay. Uli nearly sobbed in relief once the spirit had vanished and dropped to her knees to scoop Colin out of his crib, feverishly checking him over for injuries or signs of being possessed or cursed. But he seemed perfectly fine. He wasn't even frightened, though he was upset about being woken so rudely by his mother.
"Shh, it's alright, my little one," Uli murmured, but it did no good as Colin only wailed even louder and thrashed his little fists. She held him close and exhaled slowly, willing her heart to slow its frantic racing. The herbs forgotten, she stood and began to cross the path toward the sacred spring. Perhaps the tranquility of the spring would help to calm them both.
She had nearly reached it when she noticed the boy hiding behind a tree at the edge of the forest. It was his eyes which caught her attention first, big and fragile and so very blue. He had Rusl's cloak bundled around his shoulders, so long that it dragged along the ground behind him. Uli caught her breath, frozen for a second time as the two stared at one another from across the distance. The boy ducked back out of sight almost at once, but soon he poked his head out again, silent and timid.
"H-Hello," Uli stammered, almost whispering. She juggled Colin a little, trying to quiet his crying without taking her eyes off the other child. "Are you...Rusl's wolf boy? Are you Link?"
The boy blinked his blue eyes. She thought he might have nodded, but it was hard to tell when he seemed afraid to move any other muscles. He cringed back when she took a step forward, and Uli stopped quickly and made herself calm down. Rusl had told her over and over how easily the wolf boy became frightened. He was here now, but he might be gone again in the next breath. Uli tried another tactic, slowly kneeling in the grass and smiling gently at the boy.
"My name is Uli. And this little one with the big voice is my son, Colin. Has Rusl told you about us?"
The wolf boy blinked again, but this time there was something other than fear in his eyes. He seemed curious, almost fascinated as he stared and stared at the two of them. Uli tried to say something else, but Colin shrieked so loudly that she glanced down at the infant in exasperation. Sighing, she stood up again and smiled at the wolf boy. "I'll be right back. Don't go far, alright?"
The boy didn't answer as she turned and walked through the open gates of the sacred spring, but with any luck his curiosity about her might overcome any inclination to vanish back into the forest. He had shown himself to her, after all, and so had the golden wolf. It had to mean something. But for now she focused on Colin, who seemed determined to wear out his vocal chords before toddlerhood. Uli seated herself at the edge of the water with her back against the mossy rock wall, patiently soothing him with gentle words until the tantrum began to pass. Back in Ordon it might have taken the better part of an hour or two, but here in the spring it was only a matter of moments before a pink fairy emerged from the waters and fluttered close to them, drawn by the distraught cries. Colin sniffled and grew quiet, the sight of the fairy causing his eyes to widen with fascination, and Uli could admit to being a little entranced herself. The fairy flew away once Colin had been calmed, trailing iridescent dust in its wake, but it didn't vanish back into the waters like she expected. Instead it soared over to the open gates, and Uli realized the wolf boy had followed them. He was peering at her and Colin through the slats in the wood, still so hesitant that it made her heart ache.
But when the fairy reached him, he seemed to forget all about the two of them. He stared at the tiny creature with the same wonder as Colin, and Uli held her breath as the boy slowly stepped into the open and approached the spring. The fairy circled his head playfully, guiding him closer and closer until his bare feet splashed in the shimmering waters, and by then the wolf boy seemed to have lost all reservation. His face broke into a brilliant smile as he dropped Rusl's cloak and began to chase the fairy around, absorbed in the innocent game and oblivious to how Uli was watching him and biting her lip. He seemed older than Rusl had first estimated, closer to six or seven, but he was so lean and underfed. His clothes were little more than tatters on his skinny frame, the rest of him filthy from head to toe. She couldn't even tell what color his hair had once been, it was all a matted brown mess. She wanted so badly to run home for a bar of soap and give him a good scrubbing, followed by a hot meal and new clothes and a warm bed to sleep in. She wanted to hold him and kiss his forehead and promise him that nothing and no one would ever hurt him or frighten him again.
Please come home with us, Uli thought as she watched the boy splash around in the water and chase the fairy around. She looked at Colin cradled to her chest, unable to imagine her baby boy in the same situation, all alone in such a big world.
Colin whimpered again, but it sounded more needy than distraught. By now she knew the difference between a cry for milk and a cry for comfort. Uli gave him her breast and settled herself more comfortably against the rocks, savoring the harmony of the sacred spring and the rare warmth of the sun in the late days of autumn. So lost was she in the serenity of the spring that it took her a moment to sense that she was being watched. She glanced up, seeing that the wolf boy stood only a few steps away. He was soaking wet from playing in the water, his hands cradled before him and expression torn between wariness and yearning. But at last the second seemed to win out and he moved closer, each step agonizingly small and slow, until at last he was near enough to hold out his cradled hands and show her the fairy that had alighted in his palms.
"It's beautiful," Uli said, smiling, and the boy beamed in agreement. The fairy fluttered its wings and flew away, this time for good. The boy stared after it sadly, but made no move to follow. Instead he settled down on his knees in the sand before her and peeked at the suckling baby in her arms with unabashed interest. Uli had to bite down on a laugh, imagining how Rusl would frown in mock disapproval, but she suspected that the boy found Colin much more interesting than her breast.
"Would you like to hold his hand?" Uli asked him. The boy stared at her in alarm, but didn't resist when Uli took his hand and guided it to Colin's. Tiny fingers latched onto much bigger ones with a grip like iron, and the wolf boy held very, very still like Colin was another fairy he must not accidentally squish. He kept peeking up at Uli as if fearing he would do something wrong and earn her wrath, so Uli kept a tender, reassuring smile on her face. And it seemed to work. Soon all of his attention was focused on the baby, as if he had never seen anything so bafflingly beautiful in his life.
"You're such a sweet boy," Uli murmured, and she had to chuckle when the wolf boy blushed furiously in response. To put his mind at ease, she nodded at their surroundings. "Has Rusl ever shown you this place? It's the sacred spring of Ordon, the village where Rusl and I live. The village was built here because the spirits of this spring serve the goddesses and offer their divine protection to all who touch its waters."
The wolf boy blinked and glanced down at his wet feet.
"Yes, everyone," Uli said with a chuckle. "This is a special place to me. Years ago when Rusl and I were courting, he would often bring me here so we could spend time together. It was just about the only place we could go to be together and not be bothered by my parents. They thought he was...well, I won't repeat their exact words. They just didn't see what an honest and brave and caring man he is. When I was pregnant with Colin, he would come to this spring every single day to pray for a safe birth and a healthy baby. And then he would make me swear not to tell anyone just how pious being a father had made him."
She laughed to herself at the memory. The boy smiled as well, though it was not the gleeful, uninhibited smile that she had seen earlier with the fairy. And he was still so silent. There was no doubt that he understood her language, and now that he had stopped being so afraid, she could see in his eyes a wisdom beyond his years and a thousand words begging to be spoken. She hoped desperately that whatever trauma he had been through had not permanently stolen his voice.
"You know...Rusl is at the village just down the path," Uli remarked. When the wolf boy tensed, she went on. "Oh no, I'm not asking you to go there. You can stay here at the sacred spring, if you'd like. But I had hoped you might like to see something that Rusl is building for you. A treehouse."
The word treehouse did not seem to elicit the same instinctual dread as village, so Uli went on with some hope. "Do you know what a treehouse is, Link? A safe place where children go to play. But the children in our village are all very young, and the treehouse won't be used for many years. So Rusl thought that you might like to use it. It can be a place where you can be safe in the night, where no one in the village will bother you. Where you can have fire and food when the winter comes."
The wolf boy tugged his hand free of Colin and retreated a short distance, chewing on his lip and apparently putting a lot of thought into the notion of fire and food whenever he wanted. But that anxiousness had yet to leave him, the ghost of remembered horrors from however long ago.
"Would you like me to show you where the treehouse is?" Uli asked with a thread of desperation. "You don't need to go inside or go anywhere near it. There's no harm in simply looking, is there?"
The boy shook his head firmly, arms wrapped around his knees and face turned away from her. And Uli could think of no way to reassure him, to make him understand that she wanted only to protect him. All she could do was stay there with him for as long as she possibly could, long after Colin had fallen asleep again in her arms, long after the sun had drifted close to the treetops and cast the sacred spring in shadow. Uli talked to him every so often about anything that came to mind. She found that Rusl had already made Link familiar with the names of some of the villagers, so she told him about those he didn't know yet, and about the goats and the chickens and Sera's cat which could never seem to catch a fish. She told him a few stories from hers and Rusl's youth and about the kingdom of Hyrule to the distant north which she had never seen. And she could tell the boy listened to every word of it, even if he was pretending otherwise. It gave her hope that maybe one day he would find it in his heart to trust her and Rusl.
But today was not that day. As the sun began to descend, Uli judged that she had been in the woods far too long and reluctantly stood up. The wolf boy raised his head at her sudden movement, confused at first until he realized where she was going, and then he looked as though he was about to cry.
"We'll see each other again soon," Uli promised, and she had to blink back tears of her own. She had only just met this boy, and already he seemed so precious to her. Uli leaned down to stroke his hair, and it took all the strength she had not to hold him in her arms and never let go. "Be safe, Link. I love you. I'll return again tomorrow."
The wolf boy remained where he was when she turned away and walked from the spring. Inside Uli prayed the boy would spend this night near the sacred spring. Now that he knew where it was, the spring was surely a more comfortable and comforting place than any cave in the woods. And he would be protected, at least for this night. Not that he needed protection with that golden wolf spirit looking after him, but it would help her peace of mind. It might even let her sleep tonight without dreaming of his unhappy face when she left him. Without imagining the Hylian mother he must have lost and how she must have died without knowing if her son had met the same fate or worse.
The cradle was right where she had left it in the herb patch. Uli crouched down to shake out the blankets and the few bugs that had crawled inside, then settled Colin inside. He was still drowsy from his extended nap and gladly snuggled into the blankets as Uli picked up the cradle and balanced it on her hip. But as she turned to take the path back to the village, she stopped. The wolf boy had followed her from the spring and now stood only a few steps away. When he noticed that she had seen him, the boy shuffled closer and nervously took her hand, forlorn and hopeful all at once. Uli smiled, hardly able to speak for the lump in her throat, and she thanked all the gods for whatever had guided this boy to her.
"Let's go see the treehouse," Uli told him, and together they walked down the path. The wolf boy kept pace with her at first, but as soon as they rounded a turn in the path and the distant village came into sight, he balked and couldn't seem to go any farther. But the treehouse was visible as well, just across the clearing right before them. Uli squeezed his hand to bring his attention to it.
"There it is. Not so bad, is it?"
The wolf boy tilted his head and screwed up his face doubtfully, perhaps unable to decide one way or the other whether he liked the treehouse. But then a noise came from within and Rusl leaned out of the highest window to hammer a nail in place. The sight of him made the wolf boy perk up at once, and Uli could have kissed her husband for having such perfect timing. Once the nail was hammered down Rusl began to withdraw back inside, but paused when he spotted her. He smiled and called out in greeting, but then his hand froze in mid-wave when he noticed who was with her, and his shock was palpable even across that distance. He gestured frantically at Uli to stay put and disappeared back inside, and she could hear quite a bit of banging and scuffling and cursing as he tried to descend as fast as possible.
The wolf boy glanced up at her in slight apprehension. Uli shrugged. "My husband," she said with affection. "A carpenter, he is not. That sort of work we normally leave to Pergie's husband. Come now, let's go say hello to him..."
"Hey, who's that kid, Aunt Uli?"
The wolf boy stiffened at the shout, and Uli looked up in dismay as Ilia came dashing up the hill toward them. As usual, whatever lecture her father had given her had done nothing to dissuade her from coming back to the woods yet again. Uli kept a tight hold on the wolf boy's hand when Ilia came right up to them, bold and blunt as only a six-year-old could be.
"Aunt Uli, who is that? Where'd he come from? I don't recognize him. Are you his mom? Is Rusl his dad?"
"No, we're not his parents," Uli said, unsure of how to handle this. The wolf boy looked positively petrified of the young girl and was now hiding almost completely behind Uli, clutching her hand so tight that her fingers were numb. "His name is Link, and he came here from another village. Rusl and I aren't sure which one..."
"How come?" Ilia demanded. She poked her head around Uli, which caused the wolf boy to cringe back even further. "Doesn't he know where he's from? Where's his mom? And how come he's all dirty? You should really take a bath, it's not good to smell bad. People will make fun of you."
"Ilia, be kind to him," Uli reproached her. "He's been alone in the woods for a very long time."
"Really, he has?" Ilia squealed, and Uli realized that was the worst thing she could have said. "His parents let him do that? Or is he one of those Kokiri kids that live in the woods? I've always wanted to meet one! Maybe he can talk to my dad and make him change his mind!"
"Ilia," Uli said in exasperation, though it was no use. Ilia was far too busy trying to circle around Uli and catch the wolf boy, who refused to be caught and kept moving to keep Uli between them. The frantic game of ring-around was making her dizzy and she couldn't juggle the cradle and restrain Ilia and hold the wolf boy's hand all at the same time. She looked toward the treehouse, but Rusl was only now climbing down the rickety ladder and trying not to break his neck while he was at it.
"Hey, get back here, you," Ilia said bossily. "I'm trying to talk to you. You're being rude!"
"Ilia, please! You're frightening him."
"No, I'm not. I'm just trying to talk to him. How come he doesn't want to say anything?"
"He's—oh no, Link!" Uli cried out when the wolf boy jerked his hand from hers and fled at a dead sprint into the woods. Ilia shouted and tried to run after them, and Uli only just managed to snatch her arm and keep her in place.
"Hey, hey!" Ilia bellowed, but the wolf boy was gone. She turned to Uli with a pleading look. "Can I go find him? I promise, promise, promise I'll find him and bring him right back and not go anywhere else today. Please can I go?"
"No, you can't."
"But if he's allowed—"
"He's not allowed," Uli said firmly. She kept a strong grip on the girl and knelt down to look her in the eye, trying to reign in her anger and make her understand. "Ilia. When I said he's been in the woods, I meant he has been lost in the woods. Rusl and I believe he may have lost his parents and his home in a terrible accident."
Ilia stilled at the serious tone. "You mean like a fire or something? His house got burned down?"
"Yes, we think something like that," Uli said, deciding to spare her any other details. "But we don't know for sure because until today he's been too frightened to come near the village. He's been through something so awful that it may take a long time before he can speak of it."
"Aw...that's sad," Ilia mumbled. She shuffled her feet and cast a guilty look at the woods. "I wasn't trying to scare him. I just wanted to meet him 'cause I've never seen him before."
Uli rubbed her arm in reassurance. "I know you didn't mean any harm, Ilia. You're a very nice girl, but it's been a long time since he's had anyone to care for him. We need to be patient and give him the chance to trust us."
Ilia nodded unhappily, but perked up again. "So he'll come back, right? Soon? Can you tell me when he does? Can you tell him I'm sorry and I want to be friends?"
"Of course," Uli replied and glanced up when Rusl came jogging up to them at long last, his initial happiness now dampened by the same frustration and wretched disappointment that had haunted him for weeks. He gazed out at the woods in silence as if wishing alone might call the wolf boy back. Uli stood and took his hand. "He'll come back soon," she said, speaking more to Rusl than to Ilia. "I know he will."
Rusl heaved a sigh and managed to dredge up a smile from somewhere. "Yeah. He knows where the village is at now. One of these mornings I'm sure we'll wake up to somebody tapping at our window, and for once it won't be Sera's evil cat trying to keep us awake."
"Why doesn't he just knock on the door like a normal person?" Ilia wondered.
"It's late now, we should all head back to the village," Uli said with a nod at the setting sun. Rusl nodded in return and leaned down to scoop up Ilia in his arms and sling the girl unceremoniously over his shoulder. Predictably, Ilia wailed and kicked and shrieked as if a simple temper tantrum was all it would take to change the minds of the adults.
"Nooo, I want to stay outside! It's still plenty light out and there aren't any monsters or anything, why can't I stay outside and play? I want to see the treehouse! I want to see that Link kid! Let me down, let me down! Let me doooowwwwn!"
Rusl winced when Ilia's little fists beat against his back, and he cast Uli a silent, aggrieved look that she heavily sympathized with. Please gods, if you bless us with more children, let none of them be a daughter...
"So apparently, our secret is out," Rusl said several days later as he and Uli walked along the path through the village. "The wolf boy is all Ilia can talk about. She's been jabbering on about him to anyone who'll listen, including her father. So instead of me sitting Bo down for a quiet man-to-man talk to explain everything, Bo had a stern talk with me about the dangers of bringing stray orphans into the village who might or might not have been raised by feral wolves."
"Feral?" Uli scoffed. "If he's going to use words like that, then I'll be sitting him down for a stern talk of my own. Ilia is far more of a wild child than Link could ever be. That boy has the sweetest heart imaginable. I wish you could have seen him that day at the spring and how gentle he was with Colin..."
Rusl smiled at her, and burdened down as he was with a heavy stewpot and a dish of pumpkin pie, he managed to shift them both to one arm so he could wrap his other arm around her shoulders. "I knew you'd see it my way. I knew the moment you met him that you'd feel the same way I do. He belongs here with us, you and me and Colin."
"He belongs with his family," Uli said, unable to completely suppress her sadness. She nudged him playfully. "But I suppose he'll have to make do with us."
"Hey now, what's that supposed to mean?" Rusl said in affront. "You and I are a perfectly normal well-adjusted married couple. And reasonably good parents, if I do say so myself."
"I don't hear Colin complaining yet," Rusl joked. But then the grin slipped away in favor of sudden, worried realization. "Ah...where is Colin, anyway? I just noticed that you don't have him and I know I don't have him—"
"Pergie is babysitting him today," Uli reminded him, and she had to laugh at his overly dramatic sigh of relief. "Honestly, you think I would just set our son aside like a blanket and forget where I left him?"
"No, no, of course not," Rusl said, grinning. "That sounds like the sort of thing I would do."
"Oh, you!" Uli said and gave him a shove that made his feet slip on the slushy path. Rusl skidded and flailed one arm until he managed to regain his balance without dropping the food, then he kicked a pile of slush in her direction, which caused mud to splatter all over her boots. Not that they weren't already covered in mud, but it gave Uli an excuse to shout in outrage and chase after him up the steep path toward the treehouse, her breath fogging the air. The first snowfall of winter had finally struck the night before, a light dusting which left the ground muddy and all the houses resembling lumpy cupcakes. But the skies remained gray and overcast, and a deep cold had settled over the village and surrounding forest, a promise of things to come. It felt good to run and keep herself warm, even if Uli was breathless and sweating by the time they crested the hill and reached the treehouse.
Rusl was already halfway up the ladder and carefully stretching up to place his burdens on the balcony, then he reached back down to accept the bundle of blankets and spare clothes she handed up. Uli eyed the ladder in reservation as Rusl climbed the rest of the way, not entirely certain if she trusted the rickety contraption. But since there was no other way up into the treehouse, she steeled herself and climbed the thing and was immensely relieved when she reached the balcony in one piece.
"It's not much to look at yet," Rusl warned her and gestured at the thick blanket acting as a door curtain as a case in point. From what he had told her, most of his work had gone into the roof and supports and patching up any drafts in the walls. Smaller details like furniture and actual windows and doors would come later. Rusl touched the edge of the curtain, sharing an expectant but not quite daring to hope look with her, then he pushed the curtain back so they could let themselves inside. Aside from a solitary table and chair and a large storage chest for childhood treasures, the room was fairly barren and chilly. There was a fireplace and a stack of wood, but no fire had been kindled there in years.
She heard Rusl sigh almost inaudibly beside her. "He's not here," he murmured.
"Don't worry so much, darling," Uli told him, though she wasn't one to talk. When the snow began to fall the night before, she hadn't been the only one lying awake with her eyes wide open. "I'm sure he's fine. He'll come when he's ready."
"And if not, then we'll just have to lure him," Rusl concluded. He set the pie dish and the stewpot down on the table, then raised the lid of the latter to check the contents. Steam escaped into the air along with the mouth-watering taste of goat stewed with vegetables, and he grinned in triumph. "That should bring him running," he proclaimed.
"Put that lid back on before it gets cold," Uli ordered him, and Rusl was quick to comply. She set down her own burden, the thick blankets mostly spares that the other villagers had lent them while the clothes were castoffs from Ilia's closet. There were two shirts and a pair of pants, a woolen vest and boots and numerous pairs of colorful socks, but to Uli it seemed a pitifully small pile. The wolf boy would need much more than this to keep him warm, especially if he grew as fast as boys that age were said to, and she resigned herself to a long winter of knitting, knitting and more knitting.
But if it kept him from freezing to death, then she would knit until her fingers fell off.
Rusl touched her hands, which Uli only now realized had been clutched in the fabric of one of the shirts while she was lost in thought. "Now look who's worrying," he said softly.
"I know, I shouldn't," Uli said with a weak smile. "It's just...hard. When I think of his face..."
"Yeah, I know," Rusl said, leaning closer to kiss her forehead. They stood like that for a moment, lost in their mutual anxiety, until Rusl straightened and looked to either side of them. Like he had expected to see something and yet it wasn't there.
"Shh," Rusl murmured, and Uli fell silent. He stepped away from her and after a moment's thought moved toward the trapdoor leading to the dirt cellar down within the tree itself. "I just...have a feeling. Wait up here."
"Be careful," Uli said as he vanished down into the darkness. She rubbed her arms, unsure if she should be concerned or not. It wasn't like something dangerous could have snuck into the cellar. She hoped. Uli went back to the fireplace, wondering if she should try to kindle a fire for some warmth, but something compelled her to stop and take a more careful look around. It was the same sort of feeling she had gotten from the golden wolf, only not as ominous and frightening. Uli slowly turned and stared hard into every corner, every shadow...and finally it occurred to her to look up at the high lookout window where, as children, they had once spied on the village from a distance. The ladder leading up to it was in much better condition than the one outside, so Uli climbed until she could poke her head up and check the ledge just below the window.
And a smile broke out across her face.
Rusl grunted as he climbed back up from the cellar. "Nothing down there. Guess I imagined it..."
"Shh," Uli said, putting a finger to her lips. Rusl hesitated, and his gaze slowly moved to the ledge. Now that he stood across the room instead of right below the ledge, he could likely see the shapeless lump curled up beneath his old cloak. "He's fast asleep. Pass me one of those blankets."
Rusl tiptoed over to pick up the blanket, beaming ear to ear as he handed it up to her. Uli unfolded it and draped it over the sleeping wolf boy, being sure to cover his bare feet in case they were cold. She brushed a strand of hair from his face, heart aching at how innocent he looked. The hard wood under him could not have been the most comfortable place to lie down, and yet he slumbered as if it were the softest of featherbeds. As if nothing in the world could reach him here in his safe place.
"Let's wait for him to wake up," Rusl whispered.
"Just as long as we don't disturb him," Uli said as she climbed back down the ladder. "He looks so tired..."
"He's not Colin, he won't throw a tantrum over missing his nap," Rusl pointed out. He knelt by the hearth and went to work stacking wood and striking the spark for a fire. Uli laid out a blanket for them to sit on, then produced two spoons from her pocket. Rusl arched an eyebrow when she took the lid off the stewpot and brought it over to the hearth with them. "I thought that was for him?"
"Plenty to go around," Uli said and passed him a spoon. She waved a hand at the steam slowly rising to the rafters and gave him a meaningful look. "Besides..."
"Ahh," Rusl said in understanding and flashed a conspiring grin. Once the fire built up and began to burn on its own, he joined her for the feast. Long minutes passed as warmth and light and the scent of stew gradually filled up the treehouse until the place seemed utterly transformed, cozy and domestic rather than empty and cold. She and Rusl continued to eat in silence, but only until her husband went for the same piece of goat as she did, and then they glared at each other and a silent duel of spoons ensued. Which quickly degenerated into a pointless wagering contest, and try as they might, neither of them could completely contain their giggles and whispered taunts.
"Next spoonful...two carrots and a goat piece," Rusl predicted, then closed his eyes and stuck his spoon into the pot. What he ended up with was a bit of celery and a lot of broth, and his face fell. "This is simply not my game, is it?"
"That's one week of midnight diaper duty for you," Uli said with relish.
"Might we change it to one week of foot massages?" Rusl pleaded.
"Mmm...depends on whether I lose this next one," Uli said, eyes closed as she went for her next spoonful. "I'll say...one celery, one carrot and some corn."
"You can't just say some corn. It has to be an exact number."
"I don't recall establishing any such rule."
"Yeah, but," Rusl began, but stopped when his eyes flicked above them. He grinned widely and leaned back on his hands. "Well, now...look what sleepyhead decided to wake up."
Uli craned her head back, also smiling at the sight of the wolf boy poking his head over the ledge, eyes glittering in the firelight. The boy straightened up a little, cautious as always, but most of his attention was on the stewpot and he was practically salivating.
"Come on down, there's plenty for you," Rusl said in invitation. The wolf boy wasted no time and quickly scurried down to their level, and Uli tried not to be bothered by how the boy gave her a wide berth and plunked down beside Rusl instead. Obviously her husband was the one he was familiar with, the one he trusted the most in strange surroundings. Rusl handed him the spoon, and the boy stared at it for a moment like he wasn't sure what to do with it. Uli wondered how long it had been since he had used any sort of eating utensil except his hands. She had a sudden, motherly urge to spoon some stew herself and feed him each bite by hand, but suppressed it with difficulty. He would never recover from his ordeal if she treated him as a slightly older version of Colin.
"Go on, Link," Rusl encouraged him. He tugged the stewpot closer, and the wolf boy seemed to understand and rose on his knees, clumsily dipping the spoon in the stew. Uli watched his face as he brought the spoon to his mouth and noisily slurped up the broth, watched the way his eyes became huge and his shoulders seemed to tremble, as if he couldn't believe anything could taste so delicious. He hunched over the stewpot and ate spoonful after spoonful so quickly that broth dribbled down his chin and he barely swallowed one bite before he brought another to his lips.
"Not so fast, Link," Uli said, reaching out. The wolf boy jumped and recoiled against Rusl behind him, but he calmed down when Uli used her sleeve to wipe the broth from his face. "You'll make yourself sick. Go slowly, the food isn't going anywhere."
"I think manners are a bit beyond him at the moment," Rusl chuckled. He watched with affection as the wolf boy made an effort to eat more slowly, though it was a visible struggle between his hunger and the impulse to do as Uli told him. It was adorable and distressing all at the same time, though more the latter than the former. Rusl had been feeding him as often as he could, but a healthy meal every other day could not completely make up for at least half a year of starvation.
"Rusl," Uli said with solemnity. She caught his eye and nodded at the table. "I think it's time to bring the pie over."
Rusl affected a scandalized look. "Dessert before we finish dinner? What is this madness, woman?"
"This is clearly an occasion for it," Uli said wryly. Rusl rose quickly and went to retrieve the pie, clearly expecting her to change her mind within the next five seconds. The wolf boy showed little interest when Rusl set the pie next to him, fully intent on filling his belly with stew, but changed his mind when Rusl unwrapped the towels that were keeping the dish warm and the scent of pumpkin pie assaulted all their senses. Uli used her spoon to cut out a small slice and pass it to the wolf boy, who cradled it in trembling hands and immediately stuffed it in his mouth. Within seconds the slice was devoured and his face and fingers both smeared with crumbs and orange pie filling. He stared at Uli with an expression that was the perfect mimicry of Ilia saying, That was delicious, the best thing in the world, may I have seconds please? Please, please?
"Have as much as you like," Uli said, and the wolf boy wasted no time digging in and helping himself to another messy slice. She and Rusl contented themselves with one or two bites of their own, every so often meeting one another's gaze and sharing a moment of pure parental love. It reminded Uli so much of when Colin was first born and how the both of them had been captivated by the sight of him sleeping in his crib, trying to come to terms with the fact that he was theirs. Theirs to love, theirs to protect and nurture and raise as their own.
The wolf boy finished off nearly half the pie and several more helpings of the stew before the bottomless pit of his stomach reached its limit and he could eat no more. Somehow he wound up stretched out before the fire and dead asleep again, only this time with his head in Uli's lap and a contented smile on his face. Uli stroked his blond hair, noticing with some amusement that a great deal of the dirt had been rinsed out at some point. Perhaps he had taken Ilia's words to heart, or maybe he simply liked swimming in the sacred spring. Either way he was much cleaner than when she had last seen him, and with some new clothes and a few more meals, he might begin to resemble a normal child again. A normal, happy child.
"I told you, didn't I?" Rusl said, chin propped in his hands. He surveyed the two of them fondly. "Look at him. He never fell asleep like that around me. It's got to be a mother thing. You make him feel safe."
"You're the one who found him first," Uli said with a humble smile. "It was you who befriended him and brought him to the village..."
"You brought him to the village," Rusl corrected her.
"Let's say it was both of us and leave it at that," Uli suggested. She lowered her gaze to the boy again, loving eyes roving over every inch of him, and for the first time she noticed something. She touched his left hand and the visible mark on the back. "Rusl, look. Did he always have that?"
Rusl leaned closer and touched the mark for himself, a symbol of three triangles a slightly darker shade than the skin around it. "Not sure. I never looked that closely. Looks like some sort of birthmark or scar."
Uli swallowed hard. "A slave brand?"
"No," Rusl said definitively. He traced the triangles with the tip of his finger. "This symbol. I remember reading about it in one of Bo's books. It's something important to Hylian lore. A symbol of the gods, I think...or at least a symbol of their protection and favor."
They exchanged a look, the same thoughts and emotions flitting across both their faces. Uli remembered the golden wolf standing over Colin, the way it had growled at her and seemed to measure her worth with a single glance. She held the wolf boy's hand, part of her wondering what was so special about this child...and what was so special about her and Rusl that they had been entrusted with his life and well-being.
But the larger part of her simply didn't care. The truth was that it didn't matter what destiny had guided the three of them together. Deep in her heart, Uli knew that even if there had been no guardian spirit, even if the boy had simply been a boy lost in the woods, even if he had been aggressive and distrustful and savage as a wolf, she and Rusl would not have done a single thing differently. They would still have tried everything they could to bring him under their protection, to heal his body and soul of whatever harm that fate had so carelessly inflicted. That was just the sort of people they were. And maybe that was exactly what this boy needed.
"Do you think...he's ready to meet anyone else yet?" Rusl asked with cautious hope. "Not the entire village, but just Mayor Bo. As soon as we can I want to show him that the stray we picked up is not about to eat all our goats or some other nonsense..."
"He's no stray," Uli murmured. She smiled at her husband and reached over to take his hand, fingers twined. "What we have here, Rusl, is another son."
Rusl stared at her, then down at the wolf boy. His face softened, and he shifted so she could lean against him, arms wrapped around both her and the child tenderly. "Yes. So we do."
High on a rocky ledge overlooking Ordon, unseen by any of the humans, a golden wolf held vigil in the deepening twilight. It watched over the treehouse with rapt attention, though there was little to see except a flicker of firelight in the windows and a tendril of smoke rising from the chimney. As the sun set completely behind the trees and stole the last light from the world, the other villagers began to drift home and kindle fires in their own hearths, the liveliness and general noise of humanity now retreated indoors and leaving the night to its own devices.
The wolf surveyed the peaceful scene and spared the treehouse one last cursory glance. There was no need of its presence now. Perhaps there would be no need of it ever again. Only time would tell. Only time...
The wolf slowly rose, stretching and shaking out its fur one last time before it barked and leapt from the ledge...and vanished from sight.