By sundown, the wind outside had become particularly vicious. Aeo could hear its anger from inside the cave quite clearly. Considering there wasn’t much else to do besides listen and rest, Aeo laid restlessly against the back wall of cave. It was also the first time Aeo realized his shirt had been removed and put… somewhere. Considering the amount of holes and patches keeping it together, Aeo wondered if Leon hadn’t simply thrown it away.
Although the blizzard outside told him he should, Aeo didn’t care at all for that ratty thing.
This strange place. Maybe not home. But there was no pain here. Freedom.
Aeo struggled not to think. It didn’t work. He imagined what he would be doing down in the village if he’d never left. The Gray Pale Inn would smell like cheap ale and sweat, sometimes enriching itself with the air of the stable connected through the back door. The morning consisted of cleaning the rooms of travelers who departed from the inn’s few rooms. Lifting cartons of milk and cheese well into the night was a daily occurrence, serving villagers and visitors. The floors covered themselves nightly in slop and dirt, sometimes mixed with snow and ice when the season turned. A flimsy mop served as a constant companion, and he often dozed off with it in hand as an excuse in case she ever caught him. Then, at two or three in the morning, it was time for bed just to rise at six o’clock to start all over again.
That wretched woman. That gigantic woman. Ariste. She didn’t deserve a name as pretty as that. He would rather risk serving an angry bear than catch sight of her. Always something went wrong. Always something to blame on him. Always something to clean, something to move, something to serve. She always put on a face when serving guests that might convince them that she adored owning her own inn and tavern. That being the center of Olvaren gossip and news delighted her to no end. She indeed spread those rumors around, the very least the ‘fact’ that Aeo was a lazy, inconsiderate scab that had no place with the other children and even slaves in the village. But when the inn closed and even the drunk ones departed, the expression on her face would turn to something resembling rage, as if all the niceties she shared with patrons were something she kept and sealed in the money safe at the end of the day.
Useless. Good for nothing. A waste of flesh. ‘Bastard child’ was a favorite.
That wasn’t to say she didn’t have her tender moments. Very rarely, of course. She would take Aeo shopping for clothes, keeping a leash around Aeo’s neck and a sharp eye out for his thieving fingers at the market. As if Aeo had thieving fingers; he’d never taken anything that didn’t belong to him in his life. But slaves in Olvaren were known for their deviant behavior, so it must be true of Aeo. Cheap flax shirts and pants, thin soled shoes for a few copper pieces. Good enough for her, so good enough for him.
She never slept. Not when Aeo slept, at least. She threw Aeo to bed at midnight, then throw him right back out again. What drove the woman Aeo couldn’t fathom. Maybe she ran on cruelty. Slapping him was a favorite past time of hers. Broomsticks, bar stools, beer flagons. Anything she could grip and swing.
Aeo tenderly rubbed the bruise under his eye. That was hers.
Then there was Horthoon. Drunken, sloppy, drooling Horthoon. Ariste’s good-for-nothing husband. The whole village knew of his drinking problems, even more than Aeo was rumored to be lazy. How she put up with this physical embodiment of laziness, no one knew, least of all Aeo. He certainly made no effort to help around the inn, and rarely put on a mask of sobriety if he could help it. Ariste slapped him every once in a while for forgetting to purchase firewood, ignoring the dirty windows, or harassing the inn’s patrons. Never did she hit Harthoon as forcefully as Aeo. Yet Harthoon’s favorite wooden flagon was always brimming with beer, and he made sure Aeo filled it at every opportunity.
Harthoon’s favorite past times were kicking at Aeo when disturbed (which happened often), mumbling to himself, and pouring alcohol into Aeo’s face for a laugh until people couldn’t smell the difference between himself and the boy. Sometimes, when completely slobbered out of him mind in the middle of the night, he would find Aeo attempting to sleep. He would wake Aeo with a start and proceed to sob uncontrollably in the boy’s lap. Harthoon’s tangled, matted beard was usually soaked in alcohol, and would make Aeo drunk just by the smell of it. Aeo never knew how to manage this or where it came from. Perhaps he hated Ariste just as much as Aeo. Perhaps this was the truth coming out at last. But by morning, Harthoon would forget the moment ever occurred and went back to bothering everyone in the inn as he regularly did.
The bruises on Aeo’s back belonged to him.
Something must have happened for both Ariste and Harthoon to become enraged at the same time. Bad luck, perhaps. Maybe he’d been discovered napping just before closing time, or he’d forgotten to clean the ale spigots or the bar. Aeo couldn’t remember. The two emerged simultaneously into Aeo’s little closet, mad as hornets and completely unintelligible. They’d clobbered him like a pair of devils. Ariste chose a bar stool as her preferred weapon this time, something she rarely did when other blunt instruments were out of reach. And perhaps Harthoon had been just the right consistency of alcohol and nerves. To Aeo’s horror, Harthoon opened a switchblade, something he’d never done before. Seconds into the encounter, when Ariste discovered a bar stool an imperfect weapon for the tiny room, she threw it down and began throwing fists. Several connected, including the one on his face. Just as Aeo struggled to get away with a few kicks, Harthoon struck Aeo’s leg with the knife. It hadn’t cut very deep; his aim had been wobbly and poor. Lucky. It might produce a scar. Frozen as it had been, besides being covered in the day’s alcohol, the chances of infection were hopefully slim.
He had to leave. Now.
Somehow, Aeo dove between them without being grappled. He ran into one of the inn tables and threw it to the side, gaining the momentum he needed to thrust himself to the inn’s front door. He was even smart enough to throw down a few chairs in case they chased after him. He threw back a quick glance; Harthoon’s clumsy self blocked Ariste’s large body from exiting the small closet and giving chase. Aeo threw the inn door open and slammed it shut on the way out.
There was nobody out in the cold that night. No one to stop him. He might have chosen to travel the road that crossed the highway and other towns beyond, but there would be no one friendly of slaves. In fact, if any men policing the road late at night caught him, there would be nowhere to go besides right back to the The Gray Pale Inn. So he chose up. Up the mountain. As fast as he could.
Aeo shuddered and stretched his arms.
Never going back.
His limbs no longer felt sore and lifeless as the night before. The opposite, in fact. They still longed to move something, sweep something, mop something. When his feet healed, Aeo decided, he would work for Leon and Pick. He might even work for Shera, so long as she never… What did Leon call it? Right, ‘blocked’ him again. His head still hurt from the experience. But even it hardly compared to the dull aching pain that covered the whole rest of him.
Aeo tenderly rubbed the bruise surrounding his eye.
What would he say to Leon if he asked about him? He certainly couldn’t admit to being a slave. But there was no family to return to, no friends that would miss him. No one in the entire village would miss him. That part had been true. Would Leon and Shera let him stay on the mountain, or would they kick him back out into the cold? That couldn’t be true. Leon didn’t seem like a forceful man, certainly nothing like his former masters. And although Aeo could sense Shera disliking him, Pick was more than happy to be friends.
Maybe he could be a pet to a wolf? He decided he wouldn’t mind that. So long as any biting stayed at a minimum. Not that there had been any biting. The thought just crossed his mind.
The big cave door creaked. Aeo sat up. In wobbled a great furry mass, which stopped halfway in the cave to shake off the light layer of snow that covered him.
A pair of curious eyes spotted Aeo, and Pick growled quietly as a thought entered Aeo’s head.
<The color teal. A human hopping up and down.>
“Hi… Pick,” Aeo said. “Uh, hopping…? Oh. I don’t think I can walk yet. My toes still hurt.”
After closing the door with the rope, Pick clambered over to the corner of the room where his bed lay. He circled a couple of times and finally rested himself with a thud. His head came down across Aeo’s lap as it had before, and he whimpered a sad song as he looked up.
“It’s okay,” Aeo said, petting Pick’s muzzle. “Leon said I’ll be better soon. I believe him.”
<The color green. A human chasing a wolf. Then a wolf chasing a human.>
“Um… Is that… playing?” Aeo asked. “You like to run around?”
Pick barked, a sound that made Aeo flinch a bit.
“I’ll, uh… I’ll take that as a yes.”
Then, the terrible occurred again. Pick lifted his head and did his best to lick Aeo’s face. He nearly succeeded. This time, Aeo defended himself, and received wolf slobber all up and down his hands and arms.
“H-Hey! Wait! D-Don’t do that…!” he cried.
Pick obeyed as he placed his head down again. His eyes seemed to grow distant, looking away.
<The color blue. A wolf licking a human.>
Aeo frowned, wiping his arms on the fur blanket.
“Sad? It makes you sad… when you lick me?”
Pick growled and shook his head. That wasn’t it.
“Oh, it makes me sad?”
Pick yipped quietly.
“No, it doesn’t.” Aeo laughed lightly. “It’s just… messy, that’s all.”
Pick looked up at Aeo from his lap.
<The color blue. A human house in the snow. A human running away from it.>
Aeo’s eyes grew wide.
“Yeah, I was just… I mean, you… I wasn’t…” Aeo tried to slide backwards only to find himself without sliding room. He placed a hand to his lips and whispered. “Y-You can’t read my mind… can you?”
Pick shook up and down with airy laughter and shook his head back and forth.
“Oh. That’s… Uh, y-yeah, good. I mean, I was just thinking about… some things.”
<The color blue. A human falling down. A wolf howling.>
“Falling…?” Aeo reached out for the bruise surrounding his eye. “Oh, I didn’t… fall exactly. Some people… they hurt me. I ran away from them.”
Pick growled louder than he had in the past.
<The color red. A wolf chasing after humans.>
<The color blue. A wolf licking a smaller human.>
“I know, Pick. I got angry too. Really angry. But… but I couldn’t do anything. I can never do anything. I always just… sit there. I’m useless. That’s what they told me. Every day. Every day!” Aeo threw his fist at the ground and felt tears coming to his eyes. “That’s why nobody cares about me. No one’s going to search for me. They’ll just think I’m dead, and forget about me.” He arrived at a realization. “They don’t need me. They’ve never needed me. Maybe I won’t have to work anymore. Maybe they’ll torture someone else for a change…”
Pick whined and drew his head closer to Aeo’s chest.
<The color blue.>
Aeo sniffed. He raised his hand and passed it over the soft fur on Pick’s head.
“It… it makes me sad, too,” Aeo said.
<An image of a small wolf with two large wolves surrounding it.>
“What do you… mean?”
<The two large wolves licking the smaller wolf and howling.>
Aeo’s shoulders fell.
“Oh. Do I have a mom and dad.” Aeo shrugged. “I… I don’t know anymore.”
“I don’t know who my dad was. I… guess I had one. My mom died when I was really little. At least that’s what they told me. When I was born, I lived far away. Then something happened, and I was brought to Olvaren.”
Pick’s head bobbed up and down. He then started panting, and his breath filled the air.
<The color teal. A human hugging a wolf.>
Aeo rubbed his nose with his arm.
“Y-Yeah,” he said quietly. “Now… you’re my friend. Right?”
Pick lifted his head and howled quietly at the ceiling. It then fell back down into the boy’s lap. He had a grin on his face, Aeo could tell.
“Thanks Pick,” he said. “I’m… really happy you’re here.”