One Week Later
Aeo had seen a bighorner before. Once, when a few traders passed through the village one day. Twice as bulky as a full-grown horse and armed with two gigantic circular horns that rose from the crest of their heads, they were certainly intimidating but nevertheless useful. Where three or four horses were needed to pull a cart, a bighorner could do that and more.
Now Aeo stared at about eighty of them, making themselves comfortable in the largest cavern he’d ever seen. The entrance itself hadn’t been much to see, but the cave slopped downwards for hundreds of meters and widening just as quickly. Aeo could even see a small, distant stream of thermal water pour into a pool near the bottom, around which a small herd of bighorners were drinking. No wonder Shera and Pick could sustain themselves up in these high mountains. Although Aeo didn’t dare go rock climbing yet with his recovering feet, he could peer down further into the cavern and see almost a jungle of strange deep foliage further into the darkness. Not only did this mountain hide an amazing variety of plant and animal life, they all thrived up here without the knowledge of anyone but themselves. There wasn’t any need for fences or barriers to keep the bighorners in – after all, they had everything they could need. It was only a matter of guarding the entrance.
Aeo gently kicked the frozen ground with his newly sewn fur boots; his toes still itched. The boots were perfectly sized and toasty warm, the most wonderful gift he’d ever been given, an amazing feat of tailoring for a frog besides. Too bad he had no way to thank her except for saying so. Strangely, it made him kind of sick to think about it. Besides the tight flax rags that hung from his waist, it was the only gift of kindness Aeo could recall. Besides the boots and his pants, Aeo wrapped himself in a small fur blanket – just warm enough to get outside and go for a short walk.
<”Hello Aeo”,> he heard in his head. A graceful thought. He turned around to meet a figure that seamlessly blended into the snowy morning air.
“Oh,” Aeo whispered. “H-Hello, Shera.”
The wolf bent down close, sniffing the air around the boy.
<”I make you nervous,”> she stated simply.
Aeo’s wide eyes said most of it. All of it, in fact. Aeo couldn’t think of anything to say.
<”There’s no need.”>
The wolf stepped off to the side into the bighorner cave. Beside the near wall, she sat herself down and looked back.
<”I see now that I was wrong about you.”>
<”You are a special human,”> Shera said, shaking to cold off her pristine white coat. <”And I don’t speak only about your young talent with magic. You’ve become a great friend to Pick. I thank you. He was born without cub-mates. Most of the frogs don’t care for him like you do, and those that show interest bother him. No one truly has time to share with him besides Hala and I. And in these last few days he has had little to share with me that hasn’t included you.”>
Aeo clung tighter to his fur blanket.
“I like Pick,” he said.
<”And he likes you. Everything about humans interests him. He watches you and Leon and hears everything you say. I worry that he’ll grow up alone and come to hate the mountain for all its loneliness. I worry that he’ll grow to hate me.”>
The thought carried with it a form of melancholy Aeo didn’t recognize, like the smell of wet rain on stone. He stepped into the cave and away from the wind as best he could. He stepped towards Shera. She was right, though. She did make him nervous. Even in these last few days, it didn’t seem like Shera payed much attention to him, but now she spoke to him openly.
“But Pick’s too nice,” Aeo said quietly. “He doesn’t hate you.”
Shera lowered her face.
<”That’s kind of you to say,”> she said. <”He is a tender boy now, still eager to learn everything about the world.”>
Again, Shera bent down towards Aeo, nearly pressing her nose against him.
<”I’m afraid he’ll learn about the world as you do,”> said said, her thoughts distant and almost cold.
Aeo’s eyes widened a bit.
<”I’m sorry, Aeo,”> came the thought almost imperceptible. <”Great wolves such as I have the ability to see many things they shouldn’t. When I look at you, when I talk to you, I sense sadness. I sense fear. Everything you see, touch, smell… Everything you experience comes from a dark place. A place I would never want my child to be.”>
Shera laid herself down and looked away.
<”You make me afraid.”>
“I make you afraid?” The thought felt like a dark night on his mind, one where even the wind had quieted to nothing. Aeo almost dropped the fur blanket from his shoulders by the sense of it. “Wait, can you… read my mind? But Pick said he couldn’t!”
<”His senses are not yet in tune. I cannot read your mind, Aeo, but I can feel your emotions and the places they come from.”>
Aeo looked down at the floor.
“I don’t understand…” he said.
<”I’m sorry,”> Shera said, looking back at Aeo with her head laid low. <”You are very kind and understanding for a young human. There are many things on my mind right now, and I apologize for sharing them with you before they have properly formed. It is difficult to think without speaking the worlds aloud.”>
As ‘aloud’ as her words could be, of course. Aeo sniffed the cold mountain air.
“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “I just… feel lost. Like…”
<”Like you don’t know where you belong?”>
If she could read his mind, she didn’t hide it well.
<”You’re much like Leon,”> she said, her tail flicking back and forth. <”Not sure of your place in the world. Make sure you don’t tell him I said so. He is very a very thoughtful man.”>
Shera lifted herself up slightly.
<”You should know, it was Leon who convinced me that I shouldn’t eat you. You should be grateful to him.”>
Aeo took an unconscious step backwards.
The giant wolf huffed in and out as if laughing, much like Pick did.
<”I’m glad I didn’t after all.”>
No thoughts came with her words. Aeo honestly couldn’t tell if she were joking or not.
<”I’ve made you worry enough for now, young one. Leon is searching for you. He is studying in his cave further up the trail. You may want to go help him.”>
“I’ll… I’ll go find him.”
Shera rested herself along the cave wall and said no more. Aeo stepped away. It was no offense to the great wolf, but Aeo was more than happy to find another place to be.
“Ah, Aeo! Good morning!”
A very narrow, angled cave met Aeo, at least in the entrance. He slipped in between the rocks only to find that the cavern opened up dramatically, the expansive room traveling dozens of meters to a far wall, against which spewed forth a torrent of steaming water. Dull stalactites hung from the ceiling above, and almost dead in the center of the cave top opened a crack the cave which led above ground. Daylight filled the cavern, revealing the hanging mosses and vines growing the rough stone walls. Flowers and seed pods flourished between cracks in the stone walls and roots spilled right into the spring water, providing all the plants everything they needed to grow. The variety of colors almost blinded him.
The moment he entered the cave, Aeo noticed a pair of candles placed on the side wall, and purple mist bleeding downwards; another of Leon’s wards. The cold wind of the outside ceased immediately as he stepped past it, and he shed his fur blanket after a moment from the comfortable rise in temperature.
Leon stepped away from a makeshift table made of stone towards Aeo and placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders. Aeo hadn’t noticed it before, but Leon was a very tall man, and looked very much like a noble with his brass spectacles, his white longshirt, and an embroidered jerkin.
“How are you feeling?”
“Okay, sir,” Aeo said.
“Your feet okay?”
“They hurt a little.”
“Give it time,” Leon said. He looked down. “Those boots look good on you. Didn’t I tell you Hala is good at her work?”
“They’re really comfy,” Aeo agreed.
Leon stepped back towards the stone table and his instruments. To the right of the stone surface sat a variety of strange tubes, jars, and small metal tools Aeo didn’t recognize, no doubt Leon’s collection of implements for studying… whatever he was studying. On the table itself glass tubes and jars bubbled with strange liquids inside, fueled by a small flame beneath and leaning awkwardly against the rock wall. His bag sat against the left of this table, and beyond sat a small wooden box filled with an organization of strange plants and fungi. Aeo approached them, but didn’t dare touch them.
Leon adjusted a few knobs attached to the great glass contraption and looked over at Aeo.
“You wouldn’t want to eat many of those,” he said. “While this mountain may be a wonderful place for the wildlife to live, the plants and roots can be quite poisonous for humans.”
“What was the stew made of?” Aeo asked, remembering the odd colors and textures.
“Hmm… this one,” Leon said, pointing to a small purple leafy plant that looked like a blooming flower. “This one,” he said, pointing to a large gray mushroom. “And this one, my favorite,” pointing to a lumpy green vegetable shaped like a carrot. “Tastes like a radish, feels like a mashed potato, especially when boiled.”
“And the rest of these,” he continued. “Can be dangerous unless extracted correctly. Most people are allergic to junik flower. Fortunately, I’m one of the lucky ones, I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Hazelnut flowers will…clean you right out, if you catch my meaning.” Aeo wasn’t sure he did. “Iopetra root… Or at least something resembling it… Will make you blind in minutes. It wears off in a day or two, but one should still be careful. Although many of these plants and fungi look like others I’ve studied, some are quite unique to these caverns. Like this one…”
Leon picked out a stalk that didn’t look all these interesting, like a stem of lavender with a bright red petals.
“This is red madwort. Alyssum igneus.” Leon looked down at Aeo as if guilty. “I know, naming flora with technical names isn’t my strong suit. But this is the most exciting type of flower I’ve found down in these caves. Loads of them. They’ll spring up both in and out of the water, and the cavern fish love to eat it. Hala and the other frogs I’ve spoken with say it tastes too bitter to them, but I’ve seen some cavern fish leap right out of the water just to grab a few flower pods on the way back down. Drives them nuts. I’m currently trying to figure out why, and why alyssum grows in these caves of all places and nowhere else.”
“Can you eat this one?” Aeo asked.
“If you want an awful stomach ache,” Leon answered. “Believe me, I’ve tried. I don’t know why I tried it, but I did. Curiosity for its own sake. Oh, Aeo my boy, if it’s not too much trouble for your feet… Do you see those bundles of alyssum down there next to the water? Would you mind bringing those up here for me while I prepare the tools?”
Aeo looked down towards the burbling hot pool and saw two small wooden crates filled to the brim with the bright green-and-red stems. He placed the fur blanket on the ground and carefully made his way down the smooth floor of the cave—it felt as though Hala’s leather boots only gave him so much traction. The steam blowing off the rippling water smelled of wet grass and dirt, and felt amazing compared to the hot and dry ‘bedroom’ cavern he’d been resting in all week. Although his toes felt sore, he bent down easily enough and picked up one of the boxes; they didn’t weight much at all.
Aeo returned with both boxes in his arms without slipping or sliding.
“Just place them to the side there,” Leon said, pointing over the open ingredient box they’d examined previously.
“This place is amazing,” Aeo said quietly, looking back at the waterfall gushing out of the side of the wall.
“Never seen anything like this place, have you?” Leon said.
“No sir,” Aeo said. “I never got to leave the inn by myself. They…”
Aeo stopped. A cold sweat hit his forehead immediately.
“The inn, eh? In Olvaren?” Leon didn’t turn around from fixing the glass bulbs and tools. “Is that where you lived?”
Aeo said nothing. His stomach turned. When the silence lasted a lot longer than it should have, Leon turned around, adjusting his glasses. He audibly sighed.
“Here, Aeo, I have a job for you. It’s not hard,” Leon said. “Take this.”
He bent down to his bag and produced a strange stone bowl and a peculiar marble instrument.
“It’s called a mortar and pestle. The bowl’s the mortar, this tool is the pestle. Take some of the alyssum, peel off the flowers, and grind those up nicely in the mortar. Careful not to drop them, they’re a bit… special to me. Do you understand? Here, let’s get you seated on the ground.”
Aeo obeyed, sitting in front of the strange tool. Leon took a few bits of alyssum from the box, and placed them to the side. He peeled a few flowers off and placed them in the mortar, and Aeo followed suit. The alyssum flowers came off the stem quite easily. With enough tiny flowers inside the mortar, Leon stopped him.
“Now, it’s a bit tricky to grind them up correctly,” Leon said, taking the pestle in his hand and beginning the process. “Don’t just stir them around. Take the pestle in your hand like this, and mash them up in a circular motion. Here, give it a go, let’s see how you do.”
Aeo took the pestle and did his best to repeat Leon’s movements. The grinding of marble pestle on stone mortar made his teeth tingle, but he continued on.
“There you go, be sure to keep the scrapings in the center, pull them down. Good, good. You should start to see red liquid forming at the bottom of the mash. That means you’re doing it properly. Keep it up, and we’ll have what we need to get started.”
“Started on… what?” Aeo asked.
“Distillation for alyssum extract,” Leon said. “Do you know what that means?”
Aeo shook his head and kept grinding.
“That’s all right,” Leon said. “It means it will make the alyssum pure and concentrated. Break it down into its basic ingredients, see what it’s made of. It’ll help me see exactly what makes alyssum so special.”
Everything fell quiet for a short time. Aeo continued his work, thoroughly unsure if his grinding made any difference. He did begin to see a bit of red liquid, so he kept circling and smashing. Leon turned and produced a small leather-bound notebook and a pencil from his pocket. Before he lifted the pencil to write, however, he stopped and removed his glasses.
“Aeo,” he said, clearing his throat.
Aeo straightened up.
“Have you ever heard of the Library of Sartia?”
“It lies just outside the city of Sartia. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of Sartia itself? That’s all right. The city is quite the ways away from Olvaren, perhaps three or four weeks by carriage. Far enough to make you quite sick of the road.”
Leon turned around, placing a hip on the stone table and folding his arms.
“Anyway, the library is where I grew up. My parents were researchers there. Always studying something, always searching for books and scrolls and information they could present to… nobles, government officials, anyone who came looking for something. They… didn’t have much time for me. They always left me in the charge of a tutor, Algus was his name. A cranky old man, but he cared for like the grandfather I never knew. Every day was lesson after lesson, learning how to be polite to strangers, learning maths and geometry, old spells and wards from enormous books, learning about plants and animals and how everything in this world is connected to the Goddess. He never was a very religious man, but considering the evidence, I think he knew enough to teach me about heavenly topics regardless of what he believed. But geography was my favorite, learning about all sorts of towns and cities and countries I didn’t think I’d ever get to see. Algus always winked at me during these lessons, like he knew something I didn’t. Maybe he taught me how to travel before I ever did.
“But I never left that library. I lived there, I played there, I studied there… I didn’t see anything but bookshelves until I was grown enough to travel to the city by myself. Maybe… sixteen? Seventeen? I was too scared to sneak out and go on my own, especially with all the news of bandits and thieves always traveling the roads. I never had any friends besides Algus to goad me on, either. In fact, the only time I saw the sun was outside in the library courtyard. Always full of foreign visitors and diplomats, so I never could run and play like a normal child. But at night, when all those people departed, the courtyard became my favorite study hall. Algus would teach me how to study the moons and the stars. Have you ever used a telescope? No? Perhaps I’ll show you one day. It’s fascinating.
“Algus taught me everything I know about magic. He was a warder as well. He taught me how to keep rooms the right temperature, you see. He also taught me how to defend against destructive magics, how to light up a dark room without a torch, how to project your voice and image somewhere far away…”
“You can do that…?” Aeo asked.
“It takes practice, but yes,” Leon said. “And I used to practice every day. Every so often my mother would check on my progress and test me… I won’t lie, it was the only time I ever remember seeing her. She was always… distant, like something else was always on her mind. My father rarely visited me, always off on some important trip to far away cities and lands. He was a very important man, my father. The nobility of the city and even the King would call for his help all the time. I never left that library, my whole childhood…”
Aeo didn’t say anything. That sounded too familiar.
“My father was an old man by the time I gained the courage to travel. I was in a place called Andradel when he died.”
“He died?” Aeo asked. “How?” He stopped stirring the pestle and put his hand to his mouth. “Er… I mean…”
“It’s all right,” Leon said, putting a hand up. “It’s been a while now. No one knew how he died. Not really. A bad heart, said the priestess at Andradel. I don’t know if I believe it. After all, my father would help anyone who asked for assistance. If he got on somebody’s bad side… It wouldn’t take much to go after him.”
“You think someone… killed him?”
“I don’t know,” Leon said. He fell strangely silent and his eyes fell to the side, like something had crossed his mind.
“What happened then?”
“After that? I settled into a home next to the library, close enough to my mother that I could look out for her but far enough away that I could feel… independent. On my own. Somehow my mother continued her work after my father had gone, and hardly showed any sadness at all… I don’t know how she managed it.”
“…were you sad?” Aeo asked.
“I was,” Leon said. “Near the end, my father had started to… connect with me. Too little too late, I suppose.”
“Wow,” Aeo said, continuing to mash with the pestle. “So… why are you here with Shera and Pick and Hala and not with your mom?”
“I was looking… for those.” He pointed to the alyssum flowers.
“For these?” Aeo asked. “Why?”
“They’re important for my research,” Leon answered. “It’s… complicated. They’re made of very special ingredients and grow in a very special place. They don’t usually grow out in the snow, but somehow, a year ago, traders found some in the caves here on the mountain and sold them in Sartia. Said they came from the Falas Mountains. So I searched Falas myself and found… well, I found Shera.”
Leon pointed to his head.
“She did not like my arrival.”
“I don’t think she likes me either…” Aeo said.
“Trust me, Aeo,” Leon said. “She likes you a lot more than she likes me. I have a feeling that… Well…”
Leon placed his glasses on the bridge of his nose.
“Never mind about that. Let’s see how your procedure is coming, eh? Got quite a bit of liquid coming along? Good, that should be enough for the first one. Come scrape the mash into this container and we can get you started on the next one.”