In his dream, Newt was struggling to kill the mouse. He kept twisting its neck but the pitiful thing just kept squirming, its body spinning in his palm. It was the last mouse — the very last mouse in all of the Dentrees — so Newt dared not let it escape, but the harder he tried to kill it, the more it fought to escape. Something so easy had become an epic contest between Newt and the mouse — and underscoring that struggle was Moonwing’s constant, demanding hiss. Moonwing was hungry — no, the owlet was starving, and Newt’s sense of overwhelming anxiety only swelled as the very last mouse in the entire forest, maybe the entire world, squirted out of his hand as though greased and disappeared into his father Cloudfern’s chest of neatly organized pouches of dried herbals...
“Newt. Your bird is awake.”
Newt threw himself down beside the chest and flung aside the colorful pouches, scrambling to catch the escaped mouse as it burrowed away among the medicinals. Everything it touched was soiled and spoiled, and above it all, Moonwing was dying of starvation, his phlegmy hunger-hisses growing only more demanding as they were fueled by what was surely the young whitemask’s dying breath…
“Newt!” Greenweave’s voice intruded again into the roiling anxiety of Newt’s dream, and finally tipped the youth over the edge from sleep to wakefulness. Newt sat up, hearing Moonwing’s starving demands and blinking blearily at his father’s face.
“Your bird!” Greenweave prompted him, his sleepy smile an equal mix of amusement and annoyance. Behind him, the young whitemask was perched in the mouth of his nesting-hollow beside the tightly-lashed window. The white moon-mask of his face bobbed as the owlet danced impatiently, his hissing a constant, rasping demand. “Moonwing is awake and wants to be fed,” Greenweave said, as if Newt were still too dream-fogged to understand.
“Feed him!” moaned Cloudfern with far less patience, from somewhere beneath the other side of the bed-bowl, piled deep as it was with sleeping furs. “Feed him so we can sleep!”
Newt wiped the sleep from his eyes. “Come on,” he said, dragging on a thick winter coat and pulling up his hood even as he crawled out of bed. He snatched up his thick leather owl-glove and reached out to Moonwing in invitation. “Is it dawn already? Come on, let’s find you some breakfast.”
Moonwing hissed fiercely as he shuffled down from his perch onto Newt’s hand. The owlet extended his tawny barred wings for balance as Newt turned and hurried from the family den. Outside of the Child Tree, it was still dark, and the hometree around Newt was silent as he trotted down the winding stairs that led down and down again. Newt’s colorless hair took on the pale glow from the moonmoss as he entered the Storage Dens. Moonwing’s constant, demanding hisses were all that were necessary to summon help.
“Hungry-hungry-hungry!” shrilled Muckabout as the Preserver came arrowing through the tunnels to greet Newt and Newt’s young fosterling. “Baby-bird always hungry!”
“We need at least two mice this morning,” Newt said around a jaw-splitting yawn.
“No can do,” Muckabout said brightly. “Little sleeping nibblers all gone. No more left!”
Newt’s teeth clicked as his mouth slammed shut. “What?” he said in surprise. The Preservers’ store of cocooned mice, the prisoners of centuries of vermin-hunting, had seemed inexhaustible to the young elf. “No more mice? Do you have any voles? Any bats?”
Muckabout shook its head sadly, liquid eyes swirling in jewel-tones of apology. “Wee-things gets more as soon as nasty little nibblers come skritching and sneaking into stores. But now, is all gone. All gone, all gobbled up.”
Moonwing’s hungry hiss grew in decibel, and for a moment, the bird turned its round head toward the Preserver and snapped its beak. Muckabout fluttered backwards, well out of the owlet’s reach.
“Let me know as soon as you catch something again,” Newt said, backing out of the storage den corridor. “Anything, actually!” he called back over his shoulder as he hurried up the stair steps, taking them two at a time. Moonwing flexed his claws into Newt’s leather glove and baited his wings, as if hurrying his elf-friend along.
Outside, a fresh layer of snow crunched underfoot. The weather had turned even colder than was usual for the late winter, and the snow lay in thick drifts around the bases of the hometrees. The sky overhead was clear in a lull between weather systems, but from the way high, thin clouds scudded across the moons, Newt knew that another volley of snow would be only hours away. Browncoat was nowhere to be seen, but when he reached out in question, Newt could tell from the hazy touch of his wolf-friend’s mind that Browncoat was sleeping warm nearby with several others of the pack — maybe even in Blacksnake’s den, just on the other side of the wooden bulge of the Child Tree wall. Newt cast a warm thought through their bond, wishing happier dreams on his wolf-friend than his own had been just minutes before. Then he felt about in his coat pocket, until he found the leather straps of his sling.
“Hush,” he whispered to Moonwing. “Hush. We’ll find you something. Just hush, I’ll catch you your breakfast as quickly as I can!”
Newt turned south, toward the distant Broad Meadow. It would take him maybe three hours to hike all the way there — but even in the depth of winter, the forest around him was full of life, and that life was beginning to stir before dawn. Newt wasn’t anywhere near as skilled with a sling as Rainpace was, but he was just as apt to hit a target as he was to miss. His owlet preferred a diet of mice and voles, but a quail or a redbird or even a couple of white-throated sparrows would satisfy Moonwing’s hunger, and a single winter-scrawny rabbit would be more than enough to fill Moonwing’s gullet for the whole of the coming day.
As if in agreement, Moonwing gave a final, phlegmy rasp, then clapped his wings closed and swayed on Newt’s fist. The whitemask’s headed swiveled as he rode along, drinking in the pre-dawn forest around them. The young bird was three months old now, and had reached his adult weight and plumage. He had been flying for the past moon, and each day and each night the owlet grew more agile on the wing. But Newt knew that the young bird was still dependent on him for meals. If Moonwing’s parent birds had still been alive, Moonwing and his fledge-sib would not have left the nest yet for at least another moon. To Newt, the entire busy winter seemed to have flashed by in a heartbeat. It seemed to Newt like it had been only a handful of days ago that he had carried the tiny, orphaned fledgling home. It seemed like only yesterday Moonwing had taken his first flight. Before Newt was ready for it, he knew his fosterling would have fully grown up. Moonwing wouldn’t need Newt any more; he would be all grown up and able to hunt for himself, and would take a mate and maybe even return to the empty nesting hollow in the tree in the Broad Meadow where Newt had found him, to raise little baby owls of his own. ’This must be what it’s like to have a cub,’ Newt thought with sad affection. ’Only with a cub, you can have twenty winters, instead of just one.’
Abruptly, Moonwing’s wings swept open, and the owlet launched himself from Newt’s fist. Newt stopped in his tracks, startled by his owl-friend’s sudden departure. Moonwing’s flight was near-silent, even to an elf’s keen ears. He took two sweeps forward and then hovered for several heartbeats, staring down intently at the snow. Newt held his breath, and felt his hands ball into fists as Moonwing plummeted into the snow with the same, sudden violence.
The owlet’s talons punched through the icy crust of the snowbank, and Newt heard the high-pitched mortal shriek of an impaled vole. Moonwing flapped his wings twice and hopped free of the snow, his first kill dangling from both feet.
Newt found himself grinning with pride. He watched as Moonwing ducked his head and took up his prey. It took Moonwing three convulsive swallows before the whole of the vole’s body went down; Moonwing shook himself and fluffed his feathers, gazing back at Newt with the vole’s long tail still hanging out of his beak. The owlet blinked solemnly and gulped, and the hanging tail slipped up and away. Then Moonwing shook his wings out, and launched himself aloft again. The owlet swooped lazily back to Newt and settled on the left shoulder of his heavy winter coat, making a bubbling kleak-kleak-kleak of satisfaction.
“Yes,” Newt said, feeling proud and sad and happy and wistful, all at the same time. “Yes, you hunted for yourself. You won’t need me for much longer at all, will you?”
Moonwing preened on his new perch for a moment, then gave a soft, purring chortle. He launched into flight again and circled Newt twice in tight succession, as if waiting for him to start walking again. It was though the owlet were saying to him, “Hurry up — let’s go, I’m still hungry!”
Newt chuckled to himself, and followed after his friend as Moonwing led the way.