Nell trudged through the snow. In some places it was so deep that she was forced to walk with her skirt held up over her knees. The boots she had borrowed were too big for her and threatened to slip off of her feet with every step she took.
A white owl sitting on the branch of an old gnarled oak tree watched the girl as she passed by. She shivered. The forest she loved so much during the summer months became another place in the winter moonligh, a mysterious and frightening realm full of shadows.
The sky above was filled with dark-colored clouds. The sun would set soon, and the air smelled of more snow. Nell knew she had to hurry. If she did not, she doubted she would be able to follow her own tracks out of the forest. But even breathing sent sharp pains into her chest and Nell was forced to stop for a moment's rest. She sat down on a snow-covered stump, the same place where she always came to gather mushrooms in the early fall. Closing her eyes, she imagined the warm fire burning back at the manor. She almost drifted off into sleep but then woke with a shock. The cold would kill her if she did not keep awake. It would be dangerous to stay in the forest much longer.
But Sir Aleyn would punish her severely if she did not come back with his prize pig.
Something crunched under her feet and Nell realized she had stepped on a pile of half-eaten acorns. There were pig tracks in the snow, leading into a thick mess of brambles.
She was close!
"Pig, pig pig!" Nell called out, following the rambling tracks. The pig had started to run for some reason... she could see where it had made a mess of the fresh-fallen snow when it had slipped and stumbled – not once or twice, but at least three times on the ice. Clearly, the animal had lost what little wits it had ever possessed. Nell pulled her cloak up over her face and pushed through the thorns, entering into a little clearing. There was a cave ahead of her, a dark opening only a few feet high under the winding roots of an old walnut tree.
A pool of red near the cave's opening caught her eye, and Nell felt a lump rise up in her throat. It was the stain of blood on the snow. Sir Aleyn's pig was dead and there was very little of it left beyond bones. Had she discovered the den of a wolf?
Nell stumbled back in fear. Her heart pounded furiously and she tried to run, but the brambles caught her cloak. Nell froze.
There was a sound coming from inside the cave, but it was not the sort of sound that any animal made. It sounded like a child crying.
Very hesitantly, Nell went into the cave. The ceiling was so low that she had to crawl on her hands and knees. Prickly brambles cut into her palms, but she pushed onward. It was black as pitch inside and she could not see more than a few inches in front of her nose, but the sound guided her like a beacon. Her hand brushed something soft and she pulled back in horror, fearing that she had startled a wild beast that would surely attack her. But then her eyes adjusted and she realized that what she had touched was not a living thing.
It was a very fine silver wolf pelt, fine enough to have been worn by a noble lord. Nell breathed a sigh of relief. A silver chain connected the wolf's head to its tail and the whole skin was wrapped around something – a bundle of gray silk which whimpered faintly. Nell crawled closer and reached out to touch the bundle, wondering what it held.
Something grabbed her fingers and she gasped in surprise.
It was a baby boy, less than a year old with a mop of sun-colored curls. Despite the cold, the child seemed alert and healthy. His eyes were the most astonishing shade of green that she had ever seen.
Nell forgot all about Sir Aleyn's pig. She pulled the child close to her chest and raced back to the manor as fast as her legs would carry her, breathing in the smell of wolf. All eyes were upon her as she burst into the kitchen, a torrent of whirling snow in her wake.
The blizzard that night was considered to be the worst in memory and everyone looked upon Nell's foundling child with a measure of fear. What sort of omen was it, to find a boy in a wolf's den in the dead of winter? Mary Bones, the midwife, was convinced that the child was an evil thing, left by the faeries for Nell to find, but Sir Aleyn had his own opinion on the matter.
He remembered a story he had heard once about the two princes who founded the great city of Rome. As babes they had been abandoned and were saved from death by a she-wolf who fed them with her milk. Sir Aleyn gave Nell permission to raise the child, but insisted upon one thing.
The boy would be called Remus, after the lesser prince.