Lies came easy to Master Leon Sirelu. Perhaps not lies… Exaggerations. Truth was flexible, especially when it needed to be.
He hadn’t been lying about the plagues spread along the southern coast of Ashant by depraved sky pirates, nor about his attempts to discover a cure on Falas. But so were fifty or so other Academy scholars that travelled the Antielli continent on research and diplomatic missions. Such evocations arrived to his marker every two or three weeks, but served more as general requests for information and advice than required tasks. He could have chosen a dozen other subjects, but the one about the plague seemed desperate and immediate enough for the situation: it gave him a verifiable purpose based on recent events, and one that wasn’t an outright lie. Besides, if Leon had discovered some mystical fungus or root in or around the mountain that served as an instant remedy for a very specific and unnamed disease from a very specific villainous source that afflicted a very specific race of people, he would have been quite shocked.
He had little hope that the hunters or villagers would stay off the mountain for five full years, or even attempt to discover and hunt more great wolves (if there were any remaining on the mountain). But even if they did, his planted “information” about the wolves moving west along with a good snowstorm to conceal lupine tracks would put the hunters off of Shera’s trail for good.
Even he had to admit, lying about Aeo and the wolves had been a calculated but incredibly risky gamble. If the scholar had ever witnessed Leon through Aeo’s eyes, none of Leon’s story about living in the forest would have connected with the truth. But Pick had remained at Aeo’s side almost every day for hours at a time, making him the most likely being of observation besides Shera and himself. The sole facts that the scholar seemed so excited and the constable so unfamiliar with Leon and his story – along with them not immediately clapping his wrists in irons – gave him a fairly quick tell about what they did and did not know.
They already knew Aeo was powerful. But, truthfully, abused and powerful made for a more dramatic tale and cast the boy as a victim of circumstance instead of a vicious killer. Leon couldn’t have expected pity or sympathy due to Aeo’s race, of course, but it made them see that Aeo wouldn’t be worth the trouble to execute. After all, why not place some wonder in their minds as to whether they could even touch the boy without bursting into flames? To think the academy scholar actually believed the little white lie about Aeo repeatedly burning Leon almost made him grin.
The joy faded from his success when he ruminated upon the price he’d just paid. He’d just given a priceless piece of the Everspring into the greedy hands of the San’Drael Academy. No doubt the headmaster of the Academy would see to the stone’s study personally, which did not bode well. A prideful humil man named Edmund Bosik. Leon had only heard stories of the man’s work, but it was all terribly grim. Some of it involved the study of living Edian slaves in some vain attempt to differentiate them from the Antielli populace. What would he choose to do with a better understanding of a rival’s power? What new subterfuge could Antiell Academy scholars – or worse, the mercenaries they employed – inflict upon Ashant and its sovereignty should they learn how to undo Everspring enchantments?
Leon didn’t honestly know if they could even study the stone; yet another gamble. Created to expend all of its energy in a single powerful burst, the stone was never meant to provide a slow trickle that could be unwoven and thoroughly examined. With their narrow-mindedness and lack of vision, they would surely glean little about the nature of the Wellspring. But one thing was certain: Leon had no plans to report the crystal’s trade to the Academy. Besides, this was a personal deal instead of an Academy-sponsored donation, no matter how often he’d used his title to sound credible.
The good constable’s observations were astute enough. What am I getting out of this deal? A freed slave and the reconstruction of some burned-down backwater?
In the very least, Leon purchased for Aeo a better future, one where he could decide his fate away from the prejudice of that terrible country. And at the very most… He shook the optimism out of his head again. Best not think of such things now, he thought. Cart before the horse, eggs before they hatch, and all that. Still too much to do. Aeo has yet to even control a flame on his own, much less defend himself.
Leon had left his pocket watch in the cave with his bag; he had no idea of the time when he finally worked his way up the mountain. After waiting in the woods near the destroyed village for nearly an hour, he’d taken a terribly convoluted path without the aid of a light in case anyone from the village had attempted to follow him. Fortunately, he had a clever trick for overcoming near darkness: a small piece of polished opal hung between a length of leather just the size of Leon’s forehead. Wearing it much like an eyepatch, the opal rested against his right temple. Upon it, he transfixed a tiny green glowing glyph that illuminated the path before him as if it were broad daylight.
He avoided the clearing of Shera’s carnage, opting to work his way up the mountain on a northerly route. No trails on the mountain offered a simple way up, but once he breached the treeline, the bare snow gave him a fairly clear path. To wander the cliffs of Falas unaided by climbing equipment was a fairly foolish idea, but Leon had discovered perhaps six or seven avenues up the mountain that hadn’t been covered by steep rock slides or sheer vertical walls. Regardless, Falas demanded patience and an able body, of which Leon had both. The cold no longer bothered him, though the thought of poor Aeo traversing the mountain in nothing but rags made him marvel at the boy’s determination. Or desperation, whichever it was.
When he finally saw the light of a cave in the cliffside some hours after his climb, he paused before entering to gather his thoughts. Somehow, in the hours of the morning, he would have to find his horse, Poro, which enjoyed resting far into the bighorn cave, retrieve and harness Poro to the cart that hid in an alcove some hundreds of yards away from the caves, and store as much alyssum and equipment as he could into the concealable containers that were built into the wagon’s frame. Both his mind and body yearned for rest. He wished Aeo could help him, but as he finally stepped into the cave and laid his eyes upon the boy, he knew it wasn’t meant to be. Bundled up beneath the furs, Aeo slept peacefully as Hala sat beside him.
She looked up in shock at the man entering the cave, but relaxed as Leon removed his hood.
“Leon,” Hala whispered, hopping over to him. “Is everything all right? Where did you go? What did you do?”
“I went down to the village,” Leon said, bending down. “I paid a heavy price to ensure Shera would not be followed, and that Aeo could walk free. Is he okay?”
“The poor dear is sleeping,” Hala said, looking back at Aeo. “He has been for a few hours. But what did you do? What price? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“I convinced the leaders of the village that it would be in their best interests to leave the wolves alone, allow Aeo to remain in my care, and focus their efforts on rebuilding their homes,” Leon said. “I gave them a very special artifact in return for these promises. Something very dear to me. Something that my… that my father…”
He shook his head, placing both hands through his hair.
“Have I gone mad, Hala?” he asked. “What am I doing? I’m afraid all of the decisions I’ve made in the last two years… and especially the last two weeks… will inevitably end in complete disaster. I’ve worked so hard to find this place, to discover… And now that I’ve found it, I don’t know what to do… I’ve destroyed Pick and Shera’s life, I’ve left everything vulnerable and exposed, and…” He trailed off, and to both Hala and Leon’s surprise, Leon suppressed a sob and fell silent.
“Leon,” Hala said, taken aback. “I’ve never seen you this way before.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, clearing his throat. “There is so much I wish I could explain. About why I chose to come here. About why the boy…”
Leon looked across the cave at Aeo.
“…why he must be the one to help me. Hala, if only you could view my thoughts like Shera did, you would think me the most desperate, despicable man on the face of Tiathys.”
Hala lept from the floor and collided against Leon’s chest with both hands before landing sharply back against the stone floor. Leon nearly fell backwards.
“Now you listen to me, Leon Sirelu,” Hala said, her voice sharp but quiet. “Desperate is the last thing you are! You are gentle, patient, and kind, one of the most intelligent beings I’ve ever known! You have kept all of us safe, and that is the least despicable thing I’ve ever seen in my long years. I don’t know what your intentions are for young Aeo, but I know there’s no one I trust more than you to care for him.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready,” Leon said. “I may be a master at Everspring, but I fear I’m preparing Aeo for a life of conflict and sorrow. No child should ever see death, or cause it… And I fear that Aeo saw too much today. You should have seen the village, Hala. It’s gone, there’s nothing left. How can I guide him when my powers are so frail? I’m no elementalist, I’m no warrior. I’m a glorified apothecary, at best. And worst of all, I’m no father. My own father taught me a terrible example, and I fear I’ll do the same.”
“Leon,” Hala said. “I don’t know your father. But I know you, the way you speak, the way you teach. You’re not frail. You’ve only known the boy for a few days, and he already trusts you. Trust yourself, like he trusts you. If you can’t be a father, be his example. Apothecary or no, you always have the right answers.”
“And if my answers end up damning us both?”
“You’ll think of something, my dear,” Hala said, twisting her whisker. “You and Aeo have already conquered this mountain. I think you’ll be able to conquer anything together.”
Leon shook his head again and fell silent for a moment.
“You know,” he whispered. “If this advice were coming from anywhere other than a frog… One day, you’re going to have to tell me where all of this wisdom comes from.”
“Ha!” Hala said, folding her arms. “As I’ve told you, it’s motherly instinct!”
Aeo’s eyes opened. Damp stalactites greeted him, reflecting a dim white light. No dreams had come to him that night. Perhaps the stalactites were the dream. Maybe the image of Pick’s body lying prone in bloody snow had simply been a nightmare, and the giant pup would be happily dreaming in his corner of the cave.
Aeo looked. He saw the collapsed wooden door and the gaping cave entrance flooded with morning sun rays. Gone were the charms and candles that once lined the cave walls. The boxes of supplies had disappeared as well. He saw the burning embers of the campfire… then Pick’s bed of furs. But no Pick. Aeo envisioned him playing outside in the snowy morning air, carefree…
He thought he’d cried enough. He thought he couldn’t feel anything anymore. But seeing the empty bed left a hole in his heart, and he wallowed in a shame he’d never felt before. Tears filled his eyes as his face contorted, and he bitterly accepted the pain that emerged from his ribs, stomach, and bruised eye as payment for his stupidity. If he’d only stayed at the Inn. If he’d only accepted his fate. He would have never known Pick, or Leon, or Hala, or Shera, Harthoon never would have died, Aristé would have continued barking orders at him, and everything would have been…
“Aeo, dear?” came a voice.
Aeo didn’t try to hide his tears this time. Everything hurt too much to conceal anything. With his eyes shut tight against the newness of the day, he sobbed desperately for the suffering he’d inflicted on everyone he knew.
“No, Aeo… Please, dear,” said Hala’s voice. “Please don’t cry… You must save your strength for today.”
“It’s my fault,” Aeo whispered. “It’s all my fault…”
Her voice faded as a pair of boots entered the cave from outside.
“Everything is ready,” came the weary voice of Leon. “At last.”
“Leon, it’s Aeo,” Hala said. “Please, tell him none of this was his fault. Tell him, Leon…”
Aeo refused to open his eyes, even as the boots approached him and the man wearing them kneeled beside him. In fact, his sadness doubled upon itself and he curled sideways away from the man and the frog, clutching his chest, unable to breathe. No one said anything for a moment as Aeo heaved, his stifling sobs emerging from deep within.
He felt a hand rest on his arm.
“Aeo,” Leon said. “Only Tiathys knows why things like this happen, or even why they happen the way they do. So much of this world is cruel and unfair…”
Aeo breathed for the first time in several moments.
“I know you hardly know me… And there’s so much that I don’t yet know about you. But I want you to trust me. Trust in your good memories. Pick wouldn’t want to see you this way, Aeo. He would want you to be happy. Remember the color green; it was his favorite color, the first color Shera ever showed to him. He hated blue and purple.”
The lump in Aeo’s throat grew larger, and the tears dripped sideways onto the fur blankets.
“I want to teach you, Aeo,” Leon said. “I want to show you that the Goddess gave you your life and your power for a reason. A good reason. Will you let me do that for you?”
The hand on his arm gently turned Aeo to his back again, and Aeo meagerly rubbed his eyes with one hand. For a moment, Aeo allowed himself to regain a small measure of calm, and he carefully looked upwards upon the spectacled face of his mentor.
“Why?” Aeo asked with a whimper. “Why do you care about me?”
Leon’s face melted into a confident smile.
“Because,” he said. “You’re just like me. Unsure of yourself. Afraid. You just need a chance to prove otherwise. You’re worth saving, Aeo.”
Aeo wasn’t sure, but Leon might have given Hala a knowing nod.
“And if I’m the first person you’ve ever heard say that to you, then prepare to be surprised… Because we’re going to a place that is filled with masters just like me that will care about you in much the same way.”
“Aeo, dear,” said Hala, resting a webbed hand on his arm. “In just these few days I’ve known you, you’ve become precious to me as well. Perhaps it’s simply the mother in me, but I know you’re going to grow up to do incredible things. Remember, fire doesn’t just destroy. It cooks food, it lights up dark caves, it brings warmth to everyone around it. You’re going to become a light to everyone you meet. Pick would like nothing more than this, I’m certain of it.”
Aeo’s heart continued to burn at the thought of the young wolf, but his tears slowly stopped falling. Leon was right; he’d never heard this before. It didn’t seem right. Surely Leon and Hala spoke of someone else. Someone who deserved happiness. But no, as he opened his eyes again from wiping his eyes, Leon and Hala both looked right at him.
“Come on,” Leon said. “The open road awaits us, and we have a long way to travel. Do you think you can stand?”
Aeo frowned, wincing at the pain.
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly.
“No, it’s okay, Aeo,” Leon said. “Don’t try, I’ll carry you to the wagon. It’ll be a bit bumpy and chilly until we cross the mountain, but you’ll be able to rest as we go.”
“Don’t forget his fur blankets and pillow,” Hala said. “Those are absolutely his to keep. But what about Pick’s furs? Will you be warm enough without taking them? If he and Shera truly aren’t coming back, then perhaps…”
“No,” he said. “It wouldn’t feel right. If they do come back when things are more peaceful, they’ll have a place to rest.”
Parting his fur blanket, Leon bent down and lifted Aeo into his arms with surprising ease. Then, stepping into the light beyond the mouth of the cave, the temperature plummeted as the wind curled delicate particles of ice about, sapping his body heat away almost instantly. But Leon didn’t have to carry him far. A large wagon with a shallow canvas covering awaited only a few yards from the cave, harnessed to a large and powerful steed he didn’t recognize.
“Aeo,” Leon said, stopping a moment in front of the horse. “This is Poro. She has enjoyed living here almost as much as I have, although I daresay she hasn’t had proper exercise in quite a long while. We’ll have to keep our pace slow but steady.”
The horse turned her head to look at Aeo and Leon, pushing her long snout into Leon’s arms and Aeo’s side. Aeo reached out an arm and gently patted the mare’s forehead between her eyes.
“Hi Poro,” he said quietly.
Poro grunted. Her hot breath visibly escaped her nostrils, whipping away in the cold air.
“I tried to leave you as much room as I could,” Leon said, stepping towards the back of the wagon. “All the crates and boxes are secure, but just so you’re aware, there are a few hidden compartments with preservation wards to help keep the stored ingredients fresh until we arrive at Everspring. So if you find them, try to keep your fingers away from the wards… It might dispel them and spoil everything.”
“Dis-spell, s-sir?” Aeo asked.
“Make them vanish,” Leon said.
“Oh,” Aeo said. “Okay.”
“Oh, and if anyone on the road asks what our cargo is, you probably shouldn’t say anything. I can do the talking. I’ll simply say I’m your new master. Which, I suppose is true, I am an Academy master, not your… well, you know what I mean.”
Awaiting him in the center of the wagon floor between the many crates lay Leon’s fur bedding. Fortunately, just enough room for Aeo. Unable to carry him further inside, Leon placed Aeo through the wide opening of the cart, allowing Aeo to grit his teeth and haul himself deeper in. The canvas did little to keep the chill at bay, and the pain in his eye and in his chest consumed his strength, but Aeo successfully motioned himself backwards until he sat upon the blankets.
“I’ll be back with your-”
“Leon! A little help?”
Leon looked and bent down for a moment. When he arose, he held in both his hands the spherical shape of a thick-jacketed lady-frog. She hopped from the man’s hands and into the wagon just in front of the boy.
“I’ll be back with your blankets, Aeo,” Leon said, and he disappeared back to the cave.
“Oh, it’s so c-c-cold,” Hala said, clasping her arms around her. Aeo did the same, rubbing his bare shoulders. “Will you be all right, Aeo? Truly? It pains me to see you leave like this. I feel as though I’ve done so little to help you…”
Aeo’s eyebrows raised.
“But…” he said. “But you made my boots.”
Aeo looked down at the floor.
“It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”
“Oh, that I had time to do more,” Hala said, stepping towards the boy. “It was my pleasure. That anyone could make such a kind boy a slave is beyond me.”
“It’s my red eyes,” Aeo whispered. “And my red hair. I wish they were normal. Then people wouldn’t treat me different.”
“Well, you know something?” Hala said, inching closer. “When I was young, I wished I could be a great wolf instead of a tiny frog. They were so strong and powerful, so capable… Just like Shera. But I learned I could do things with my webby fingers that their paws and teeth couldn’t. Like sewing, tanning, and sketching.”
Hala lifted a finger.
“So you remember, young humil,” she said. “Your eyes and your hair don’t define your talents, and they don’t define your heart. Learn all you can at this Academy. Discover what you can do that nobody else can. And please…”
Hala wiped a tear from her eye.
“Promise me you’ll take care of Leon. I have a feeling he’s going to need your help just like you need his.”
“My help?” Aeo asked. “But he’s so… sure and right. All the time. How could I help him?”
She leaned forward and, to the boy’s surprise, gave Aeo a gentle hug, opening her arms around Aeo’s chest as wide as she possibly could; her stuffy round coat got in the way.
“Just be good to each other,” she said to Aeo. “I don’t know what you believe, Aeo, but I know the Goddess is watching over you. Both of you. You trust in Her, and she’ll guide you to safety.”
Aeo sniffed at the cold air and realized something.
“I’m going to miss you,” he said quietly, wrapping his arms around the frog as best he could.
“And I’m going to miss you too, my dear sweet boy…” Hala said. “I know we may never see each other again, but if you ever decide to climb the mountain, you come find me. I’d love to hear about everything you learn.”
“I’ll come back,” Aeo said. “I will, I promise…”
Leon appeared and dropped an armful of fur blankets into the wagon, along with his personal bag.
“I suppose it’s time,” he said.
Aeo released Hala and she pulled back after patting Aeo’s cheek. Stepping onto the furs, she hobbled over to Leon and gave him an embrace as well.
“I don’t care if it takes you a lifetime to return,” Hala said to him. “I want to see your face again. You come back, understand?”
“I’ll try, Hala, you know I’ll try,” Leon said, hugging her. “If only to make sure you and your family are still safe.”
Leon lifted Hala again and bent down to place her upon the snowy ground. He then slid into place a wooden slat to the opening of the wagon to ensure nothing fell out. Aeo didn’t see Hala for a moment until she stepped back far enough to look past it.
“You two travel safely!” she shouted above the wind, waving her hand and hopping up and down. “Look after each other, now! Good-bye! Stay warm! Make sure you get plenty to eat! And plenty of rest!”
“We will, Hala!” said Leon, disappearing to mount the front of the wagon. “Good-bye!”
Aeo covered himself in his fur blanket and waved back at the small frog. After a moment, the wagon bucked forwards, rumbling across the icy earth. Hala began to fade into the snowy morning, waving all the while.
“Good-bye,” he whispered. When Aeo could no longer see Hala or the cave, he laid down and buried himself in his fur blankets and began to cry.