It was, without a doubt, the dumbest bear she'd ever seen.
The stupid thing lumbered oddly from side to side, ignoring the sheep, and seemed only moments from outright falling off the side of the mountain. Several sheep on the outskirts of the flock were braying in mild terror, but the rest remained blissfully oblivious to the large black creature bumbling its way drunkenly along the precarious edge of the gorge. As Lill'th watched, the bear stumbled into a bush of thorn-vines and began to flail weakly, like a dying octopus—not that Lill'th had ever seen an octopus, but they were a common monster in her favorite picture book, The Enthralling Exploits Of Naffyt The Pirate, and the comparison seemed fitting.
The bear stopped moving suddenly. Lill'th squinted in suspicion. Had it died?
Or, no—that was definitely a snore—it had fallen asleep, in the middle of the thornbush. The dumbest bear, she swore to herself.
But what animal slept like that? There was something unsettlingly wrong about the way it had moved, the way it had overlooked the sheep, and the way it now twitched between snores.
Lill'th was no fool of a shepherd girl, and she quickly gathered her flock to bring them home to Om for the night, leaving the stupid black bear snoring gently with vines creeping into its mouth. The sun set gloriously on her way back to the village, reaching through the twin-peaked Blue-Horn Mountains to light the Blue-Foot Valleys all on fire—though not literally, Lill'th thought, as the thick, tough grass covering the valleys was entirely too wet to be burned.
She had tried burning it once, as a very young child attempting to cook a huge pile of “beetle-flowers” for her mother, and had nearly died from the smoke that quickly filled the outhouse. Her mother had been hysterical upon pulling young Lill’th from the billows of smoke, though to this day Lill’th could never be sure whether it was with worry or with laughter.
“Loej’s eyes, child,” her mother had cried, “I told myself you’d finally learned to poop in the proper place, and here you are, burning yourself alive! What in Thykaismoss were you doing?”
“Uhhh,” Lill’th had rasped.
(Thirteen years later, Lill’th was fully potty-trained, but still grew faint at the sight of fire.)
Tonight, Lill'th found herself oddly distracted and jumpy as she herded the sheep into the fold and went to wash up at the town pump before returning to her house, like something gravely important was about to happen. There was nothing she could think of to explain the way she was feeling, not even the fact that it was her sixteenth birthday and that she’d more than likely find herself betrothed before the night was over.
She went through her mental list of eligible boys one more time as she scrubbed at her hands and splashed water on her face: Aaron the weaver’s son, who unfortunately smelled like lard and mothroot dye; Levi the blacksmith-apprentice, who was handsome but took all of Lill’th’s jokes literally; and Jethro, another shepherd, who had already lost half his teeth from all the fights he got into. It was absolutely nothing to worry about.
It was, yes, a smaller and less dashing group than her sister B’naala had chosen from last year, but Lill’th felt sure it would be all right. Any of the boys would make a fine husband, and she was impatient to be married. While watching the sheep, Lill'th often dreamed of building her own house, expanding her flock, raising her children, and feeding her parents when they grew old and grumpy. She also occasionally dreamed of visiting the sea or the great White-Eye plains in the east, but those were far less practical fantasies and never lasted very long.
Softly singing an old shepherd's tune to herself, Lill'th crossed the shadowy cobblestones of the twilit town square to her home.
Sing the baby lambs to sleep
Baby lambs are baby sheep
Kill the wolves before they come
HUM HUM HUM
Lill'th pulled off her worn felted boots and left them by the doorstep as she went inside.
In my hand a staff I keep
A staff for guarding baby sheep
Kill the wolves before they come
Lill'th stopped singing abruptly. There was stranger sitting on a small stool in the common room, his long legs shaking slightly and looking incredibly cramped. Where had he come from? There hadn't been foreigners in Om since her own mother moved here to marry her father, twenty-three years ago.
As she entered the room, the man's pale features lit up with a wide, toothy smile.
"You must be Lillith," he said, and there was suddenly something familiar about him, like she knew him previously, but that was impossible, since he had just gotten her name wrong.
"It's 'Lill'th,'" she corrected him. "Who are you?"
The revelation smacked her in the face like a nasty mountaincat when the man stood up, unfolding his long limbs awkwardly and very much—uncannily—impossibly—like a dying octopus. In that moment, Lill'th knew—though she didn't know how she knew, but she definitely knew—that, somehow, this odd stranger was the bear from earlier that day. She reeled, taking a step backward.
"My name is Eivex," said the stranger, still smiling. "I've come to make an offer."