The eastern side of Aelioanei was much different from the west. The trees were larger, and their leaves colored differently by the coming winter, the indigos and blues of the northern forests replaced by oranges and reds. Slate moved with wonder through the new environment, the thick growth around him alive with grunts and calls of wild beasts and birds. The cacophony was quite unlike anything he had heard before, and disorienting at first. Eventually, Slate began to recognize the musical patterns in the different animal calls, how they all answered each other and set countless countermelodies and new rhythms into motion as the song progressed. Taking every opportunity to relish the wonderland, smelling every new flower and inspecting every new insect he came upon, Slate made his way through winding lengths of what he termed the Orange Forest.
He came around a bend to hear an awful growling noise, something both terrifying and pathetic at the same time. Slate stepped off the trail to seek out the source of the noise, and found it coming from a hulking, white snarlingwulf. He was alarmed and surprised to see such a rare creature, before realizing the shaggy beast had gotten itself caught in a tree root. Slate’s first instinct was to leave, as snarlingwulfs were reputedly vicious monsters, but as he went to turn the animal let out such a pitiful howl that Slate couldn’t help but feel sorry for it. The poor beast was trapped, as trapped as Slate had been in Alleste. He just couldn’t leave it to suffer.
Slate approached the animal warily, with no real idea of what he was going to do. The wulf gnashed its teeth and pulled its ears down to its head in a show of angry fear.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’m only trying to help you,” Slate said. “I… just don’t know how.”
The animal opened and snapped shut its jaws and tried to lunge at Slate, but couldn’t budge. It fell upon itself in a great bluster.
“Hey, do you want me to help or not?” Slate asked, putting his hands on his hips.
The snarlingwulf rolled a reluctant growl deep in its throat and didn’t move when Slate came closer to examine how exactly it was trapped. The tough nadderwood root had split the animal’s heel, and the wound had been exacerbated by the animal’s writhing.
“You’ve made quite a mess of yourself,” Slate said.
The snarlingwulf grunted.
“I’m going to try to get your leg free, okay? But you can’t attack me, alright?”
The animal turned its head, reluctantly agreeing.
Slate found a tough piece of nadderwood lying nearby and stuck it into the root tangle where the snarlingwulf was caught, then began to rock it slowly back and forth. He slipped as he did so, knocking against the animal’s wound and causing it to shriek in pain. But it didn’t lunge at Slate now. It accepted his apology and stayed patiently still while Slate continued to work to free it.
Slate put all his weight on the nadderwood and the root finally broke. The snarlingwulf pulled its leg free and ran from where Slate had fallen from the force of the root breaking. It licked its wound, and then paused for a moment, staring Slate straight in the eye, before limping away.
“You’re welcome!” Slate shouted after the snarlingwulf. “Not even a thank you. Unbelievable.”
He continued on toward Aislin, feeling rather proud and now brave. He wondered what his brother or father would say about his having saved a snarlingwulf. Surely, they’d be impressed.
The sun was nearly set now, and the woods started to flicker with tiny blue fireflies. Slate was marveling at the tiny bursts of light when, without warning, a figure in a green cowl dropped down onto the trail with a loud smack. The figure rose up and lifted an arrow-primed bow towards Slate’s chest.
“Your pack or your life,” a voice from under the cowl threatened.
Slate was startled, but not shaken. In one swift movement, he used his left hand to knock the arrow pointed at him away, then ducked and swung his leg out, which managed to stagger the stranger, though not bring him down.
At this, three more figures rose out of the surrounding brush, two of which had their own arrows drawn. The third was surely the biggest person Slate had ever seen, and carried a massive club in his left hand. Slate knew immediately that he was outmatched.
“I’m sorry! Please don’t hurt to me!” he managed to blurt out, putting his hands up and slinking back from the figure in the cowl.
“Ha!” the man laughed. “A big show and now he’s scared, is that right? I ask again: Your pack, or your life? This is not threat, it’s a choice.”
One of the other men added, “And you should choose, now.”
Slate began to sweat. He stuttered as the three other hijackers surrounded him. The huge one batted Slate to the ground with a lazy swipe of his hand and then pinned him down under a massive boot.
“What’s the matter, little one?” one of the men taunted. “Are you…”
He couldn’t get his last word out, because the wounded snarlingwulf Slate had rescued earlier came exploding out of the woods in a burst of sticks and leaves. The animal landed on the back of the hulking brute of the group, freeing Slate, then sank its huge teeth into the back of the hijacker, who howled and wailed and thrashed as his accomplices ran for the woods. When the snarlingwulf had sufficiently shredded the brute’s back, he pivoted off, to capture the fleeing leader of the criminals. With a snap-crunch and twist of the neck, the man in the green cowl was thrown into a tree. He hit it with a loud crack and then slid down the trunk, unconscious.
The snarlingwulf then joined Slate’s side, barking and howling at the other men who had dropped their things and were fleeing into the woods. Slate wasn’t quite sure if he was going to be next, and so he stood petrified with fear, waiting for the creature’s next move.
When it became apparent that the wulf wasn’t going to tear into him, Slate picked up his things.
“Thank you,” he said awkwardly to the panting animal, before resuming warily on down the trail. Within a few steps it became apparent was that the snarlingwulf was following after.
“You’re not going to eat me, are you?” Slate asked, turning to face the animal. “I don’t have any food to give you.”
The snarlingwulf came closer and closer to Slate, who stood his ground as best he could while trying to tremble as little as possible. The animal came so close Slate could feel its warm breath as it panted. Slate was just about to break into a panicked run when the wulf stuck out his snout and gave his face a wash with its giant tongue.
Slate moaned and wiped the awful-smelling saliva from his face. “Is that all you wanted to do?” he asked. When the animal licked him again, Slate tried to act happy about it and returned the affection with the best chest-scratching he could manage.
“Well, thank you, very much, for the help,” Slate said after the scratch-down. “Maybe we’ll meet up again someday.” He turned again to walk away, now without any fear that the animal might do him harm. But the wulf started again to follow.
“I already told you, I don’t have any food,” Slate said.
This did nothing to dissuade the creature.
“And I have no idea where I’m going, either.”
The wulf didn’t seem to mind.
“Well, you can do whatever you want. But if you’re going to keep following me, I’m going to have to give you a name, you know that, right?”
The animal was walking closer to Slate now, more at his side than behind.
“You remind me of Pilotte, from The Legend. Do you know that story?” Slate asked.
This provoked something like a smile from the beast.
“I think you do! Well that’s going to have to be your name, then,” Slate said. “Pilotte. Are you going to come with me all the way to Aislin, Pilotte?”
The animal trotted along as well as it could on its wounded leg.
“I’ll take that as a solid maybe. It’s a good thing, too. I needed a traveling partner,” said Slate. “And we’ll get something to eat soon, okay?”
With Pilotte at his side, Slate felt much less scared. He had someone to talk to, and something to care for. He didn’t know how long the wulf would stay around, but he hoped it would be long enough to see his wound healed, and to repay him for his help.