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Who? by Zoey Daniels


Wild Ones, Book 4
by Zoey Daniels

Changeling Press

eBook BIN: 06130-01968

Rosemary, unofficial guardian of Leman, has waited — patiently, and not so patiently — in fierce hope of one day drawing the attention of the agri-moon’s strange and wonderful animals who become men. But after her fortieth birthday, she’s begun to doubt her dreams, and let her hopes drift away.

Until, that is, she finds herself receiving an unexpected visitor. The first, in fact, of three.

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Chapter One

The sum of her customer’s goods took up less than the capacity of a leather satchel laid on the grass outside Rosemary’s mercantile.
Their owner stood guard above them, hands behind her back. A woman both tired and sunburned — though she’d be the sort to develop a tan sooner than later, once she had a chance to stretch her legs on the prairie and breathe deep of the good fresh air — kept as careful an eye on Rosemary as she did her possessions.
“This is a quality satchel,” Rosemary remarked, not surprised when the woman only nodded guardedly. She wouldn’t know how to trust yet. She’d learn, or re-learn, as the case might be. Leman had that effect on women. “Are you sure you want to be rid of it? You have enough gold to be getting on with.”
“Sure enough,” the woman muttered.
She seemed certain, and everyone had reasons for the things they did, immediately apparent or no. Rosemary let it pass. She knelt to examine what the woman wanted to sell. No, “wanted” was the wrong word. Space passage to Leman did not come cheap, even now. Everything brought from other worlds had already been sorted and sorted again, with only the dearest bits and pieces brought along.
She wouldn’t want to sell anything she’d brought so far. More likely it was having the sense to know she needed to be rid of just a few more old ties that would hinder by binding.
Rosemary’s hair popped free of the leather loop she’d attempted to tie it back with. “Pfft!” She blew the curls out of her face. “Perhaps I should cut it,” she said, pleased by her customer’s reluctant amusement. No harm in it being at her expense. No matter how she tried to braid, tie or knot her hair, the curls would not behave and never had. “What do you think?”
“Be a shame, but couldn’t blame you,” the woman said, her voice surprisingly throaty. “Worse’n a bird’s nest.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” There. Rosemary knotted the ends of leather together and tied her hair back. “Birds are master builders. Their nests are lovely. Have you ever seen one?”
The woman raised an eyebrow at her diction.
Drat. Rosemary sat back on her heels. “Don’t, please. I promise you I’m not a snob. I had scholars for parents, and believe me when I say I learned the most proper speech they could drill into me. Old habits die hard.”
The woman made a noncommittal noise, but relaxed. Still tough, and a good thing, too; she had to be on Leman. But there was a heart under there, and unless Rosemary was mistaken she had a sense of humor too.
“I think we can agree on a trade for the satchel,” Rosemary said. She dusted off her hands and got to her feet. “Come inside. I’ve papers that –”
She stopped short, intrigued. Well, now! A pair of boys lurked behind the full wagon. Had the woman seen them? Perhaps not. They weren’t boys, though, were they? Young, yes, but in all ways that counted they were men.
And… not exactly men, too. After spending the most of her life on Leman, Rosemary knew a trick or two about how to discern what a thing appeared to be, and what it actually was. Wolves, were they? Yes, wolves, and handsome ones at that.
Leman did not care for human men — Rosemary knew as much all too well, and had seen it time and again — and those who thought they’d find it child’s play to dominate this small agri-moon had long since run yelping with their tails between their legs. So to speak. Some still tried, of course; there’d be one, perhaps two a year who chanced their luck, brave or foolish or stubborn enough to think they’d succeed where others failed. Rarely did they last longer than a week. Often less.
Rosemary remembered when men thronged Leman, and remembered when they’d gone. Remembered the three years of static uncertainty in between, and then the afterwards, when women began to come. The prisoners, the desperate, and the lonely, all of them stubborn and strong.
And the male beasts on Leman, the peculiar beasts who could become men, sat up and took notice. As these wolves, in their two-legged shape, now did.
She winked at them. They winked back, but didn’t come closer.
So they’d chosen, then, and they’d chosen this one. Chosen well, too. They’d be a fine pair for the woman with her tough armor and tender heart. She nodded to them, putting a finger to her lips. Oh yes. Wolves. She could see it in their grins. They disappeared behind the woman’s wagon and reappeared moments later in their lupine shapes, loping away, following their own noses.
Impatient little beggars. Rosemary chuckled. The woman would have a surprise waiting for her at her homestead.
She’d noticed Rosemary’s distracted attention. “Everything all right?” she queried.
“Fine,” Rosemary said, pleased and glad to show it. “Exactly as it should be, in fact.” She offered the woman her hand. “What is your name, by the way?”
The woman took it awkwardly, but willingly enough — now. “Lainey.”
“Pleasure to meet you. I’m Rosemary.” She gestured at the mercantile. “Shall we?”
“Hold.” Lainey shaded her eyes and peered up. She pointed at the eaves of Rosemary’s mercantile barn, where she stored grain and hay, and at the rough circle she’d sawed where a sort of crawl space might be in other buildings. Ah, yes. “Got a broken board or two there. Need help fixing it?”
“Not at all. It’s there for a reason. Would you like to see?” Rosemary beckoned Lainey to the barn door and slid it open six inches, just enough to peek through. Lainey frowned, but she was brave, and took her chances looking in.
Lainey flinched. Just a little. Rosemary pretended not to have noticed; she wouldn’t tell. A woman needed her pride. “Oh,” Lainey said. “Never saw the like of those.”
Rosemary laid her palm flat against the comforting, worn-smooth frame of the door. Many and many an hour she’d passed here, watching her friends just so. “Not many have.”
“What are they?”
“They’re called owls.” The largest of the lot turned his head toward them with an air of fierce quizzing. “Don’t mind him. It’s all for show. He wants us to know what a handsome fellow he is. And he is, isn’t he?” She knew better than to try, but it would be wonderful to — just once — touch their snowy breasts, admire their pale masks up close, and get a proper look into dark eyes filled with wisdom and mystery. Yes, that was silly, but she loved them so, even if they were “only” ordinary owls, not of the sort to change their shape.
If only… Ah, well. Her fortieth birthday had come and gone, and Rosemary’s hopes were thin as spider’s silk. Best not to waste time wishing for maybes and never-weres. “Did you not have owls where you came from?”
“None like those.”
The chief male rustled his feathers and tucked his beak against his chest. “That’s us dismissed,” Rosemary said, guiding Lainey back. “Best let them be.”
Lainey shut the door tidily. “They’re good for catching mice, aren’t they?”
“Good for more than that,” Rosemary said. They were good company, in their way, and she wasn’t ashamed. On this moon, she could be as peculiar as she wanted. That was the second joy of Leman — and the chief joy of freedom.
Still, she looked over her shoulder, once. Wishing.
If only, if only, if only…
* * *
An old song came to mind as Rosemary watched Lainey’s wagon roll away. She couldn’t remember the words, but the tune sprang up as lively as the wolves Lainey had yet to notice. Playful, they nipped at one another’s heels, stopped to wrestle and to chase each other backward, then trotted on apace. Lord, they’d be a handful and a half.
Rosemary hummed the melody to herself. Was it a love song, or a courting tune? Either way, let it be for luck.
And as for me? Rosemary stretched, arms over her head and toes digging into the wheel-tracked earth. Here I am. As I have been.
Sometimes she wondered — only once in a very long while — why none of Leman’s creatures had chosen her. Did she stand apart, as the self-appointed guardian? Had she made herself untouchable by showing, with small words, and by planting seeds of ideas into the minds of those who crossed her paths? Was she too valuable to risk?
Nonsense. Perhaps I’m just too old for their taste. Though Lainey was older, wasn’t she?
Honestly, now. Rosemary rolled her shoulders, briskly shaking off the tension. When wondering got the best of her, she knew where to go to settle her mind. She didn’t indulge often, mind. Wild things should stay wild. But when she needed the peace and quiet of their company, she could go and sit inside the barn with her owls, and smooth her feathers by watching them.
Locking the mercantile behind her — the wild things who did not become men would gladly tear through her foodstuffs and chew up her leather goods — Rosemary slipped as silently in the deepening sunset to her hideaway as one of Leman’s own creatures, and slid the door closed behind her.
There. Better. Much better. The owls stirred and shifted on their perches, both exposed beams and fallen branches she’d brought in here to provide perches for them. She breathed in the wild scent of feathers, and closed her eyes, all the better to imagine herself surrounded by the small noises of owls waking for the night.
“Hello, little ones,” she said, once they’d grown accustomed to her. She opened her eyes to watch the owls test their wings and preen one another. Only three tonight, large males. “You’ve decided to claim the best spot for yourselves, have you? Smart of you.”
They blinked their fathomless black eyes at her, deep as pools of ink surrounded by snow white feathers; they shuffled and chirred, reminding her of a circle of wise men, bent in study over a book. Only she was the book. One cocked his head to the side.
She didn’t laugh out loud; she’d learned to let the sound of her laugh show in her smile. Yes, just the shape.
That tune. Rosemary couldn’t get it out of her head. Words had begun to come back to her. “Lavender’s blue, and rosemary’s green,” she sang under her breath. What was the rest? She hummed the melody through to its completion. The owls stared and shuffled on their perches. Not alarmed. Only curious. “You are brave if you can stand up to my singing,” she said. “Though since owls don’t sing, perhaps you’ve no idea what a tune should sound like.” She tapped her foot to the music, imagining it as large as life and played by skilled hands.
The smallest of the owls hopped off its perch, sinking up to his talons in the straw. She smothered a laugh as he shook out his feathers and hopped back. All three watched her toes, dancing out the rhythm.
“Does that interest you? I am acting not quite like myself, I suppose; it’s good you’re patient fellows.” Rosemary mimicked their tilting of the head. “It’s called dancing. Shall I show you?”
Why not? No harm in whimsy, as long as she didn’t frighten her friends. Rosemary stood, careful to move slowly, raising her arms as if they were wings. She toed off her shoes — no owl would let a snake or a spider live in this barn, nor less a rat — and bent her arms to the position she’d taken when dancing. “Like this, do you see?”
From the sound of their dubious chirrs and quiet hoots, they did not see, but nor were they afraid. Rosemary closed her eyes and turned around in a circle, humming to herself.
Lavender’s blue,
Rosemary’s green.
When you are king,
I shall be queen.
Rosemary’s smile widened, memories warming her. She’d danced with a man once. A human man, that was, a student of her father’s. He’d fled Leman with all the others, but she remembered he’d been sweet, with a kind mouth and big, clumsy, gentle hands. A lovely lad in her memory. He’d gone and she’d stayed, but she remembered the night when they’d danced — and more — until the dawn rose…
There had been owls that night, hadn’t there? She’d forgotten that until now, but yes, now she remembered. She’d bared her body for a man for the first time in the last gleams of summer sunlight, in a cozy hideaway like this not so far from this one, sleepy owls watching from the rafters. He’d hummed the song to her and turned her around in whimsical circles, promising her his love. He’d have kept his word, if he could.
Rosemary didn’t want to open her eyes. Not if she were to be alone again. Why not make it last? She could. She had every right to lose herself in a flight of fancy, twirling around and about, straw and good earth dusty between her toes. She tipped her head back, remembering the press of the young scholar’s lips just there, at her throat, and –
A small noise broke the spell with a pop. Not much as noises went, but only those who walked on two legs could clear their throats. Only humans could do it in a way that suggested uncertainty.
“Oh.” Rosemary’s heart pounded with the surprise. She put her hand over the thundering pulse and almost lost her balance. Her hair fell out of its queue again and fluffed around her face; good grief, what next?
“Apologies, lady.” The male in the doorway took off his hat in an old, old gesture of respect. She hadn’t seen the like since the days of scholars. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Rosemary could only stare. Good lord. “You’re human,” she said to the young man. Her cheeks burned hot. “What are you doing here?”
“I heard singing –” He stopped. “Apologies. I’ve embarrassed you, too, haven’t I?”
“Not really. And I hardly think you could call it music,” Rosemary said, rueful and beginning, despite herself, to be amused. Look at him. He was young, and as battered and worn by travel as if he’d walked afoot a hundred miles. Her heart went out to him. Her sense of curiosity, too. But she might be alone in that. The owls hissed and clacked their beaks, scraping their talons on the perches she’d built for them.
“Come outside, where we won’t disturb them,” she said. “You have a story to tell, I think, and the owls might not be keen but I want to hear it.”

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