“’Ey! Stupid boy! Wake up!”
The boy felt a terrible force kick him in the stomach. It knocked the wind out of him slightly, making him clench inwards.
The boy’s mind swam in deep waters. He’d been dreaming again. Something about being out in the blazing sun, feeling it against his skin. Its warmth filled him, made him feel relaxed and strangely powerful. He frowned. Considering he lived in the mountain village of Olvaren, the sun only shining brightly for about two weeks out of the year before frosting over again, he didn’t know where this feeling came from. A distant memory told him he came from somewhere much warmer than this, but it remained only an echo, something unreal and untrue.
“Oh no you don’t, you get right out of bed before I have to slap you out of it!”
A terrible collection of pinpricks struck his face, waking him immediately. A broom.
“Come on, now, you’ve got chores to do! Don’t make me grab the leather and make you!”
Aeo mentally switched gears. Slowly, but diligently enough to convince Ariste that he wasn’t disobeying her. He rose from his small cot, rubbed his eyes, and noticed the large woman was holding the broom out to him.
“Oh,” he whispered, and took it.
“Lazy boy,” Ariste replied. “Come on, come on!”
The Gray Pale Inn smelled like cheap ale and sawdust this morning. Along with something else… Oh, right, it ‘enriched’ itself with the air of the stable connected through the back door. Horrible. Some patron to the inn had brought with him a team of five horses and just barely fit them all into the meager space. Needless to say, Aeo would be cleaning the stable when the man left. He would gratefully do it, too – it was the only time he would be free of the inn itself, giving him time to think to himself.
The morning usually consisted of cleaning the rooms of travelers who departed from the inn’s few rooms, and this the boy did first. About half of them had departed at dawn, no doubt to see themselves on the road before the usual traffic. And by the time those rooms were cleaned and made right, the rest would leave and give him more to do. The boy had heard talk that Olvaren sat in the middle of a ‘trade route’. He didn’t quite know what that meant, besides the fact that the inn filled itself night after night with tired travelers and men looking to get drunk. Up the mountain, maybe, where a slave could be free…
“Hurry up, boy!” Ariste would say after each room, usually throwing a swing of her hand hoping to catch the boy’s ear. Or maybe it was a broomstick handle, a beer flagon, even a candlestick. Anything she could grip and swing. He didn’t know why. After all, no one ever came to find a room for the night at seven o’clock in the morning. At least the boy knew how to avoid a blow.
That wretched woman. That gigantic woman. Ariste. His owner of three years. 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. If the patrons were unhappy with their rooms somehow, the boy would hear no end of it at the end of the day. If someone in the inn managed to slip or fall because of spilled beer or water, the boy would be slapped at least once and sent to bed without food. After all, it was his fault the floors weren’t cleaned spotless. Goddess help him if he ever spilled food on the floor or tripped and spilled drinks on customers. What a clumsy worthless Aurion, Ariste would say, to the delight of the patrons. Aurion, being his place of birth, of course. Some place he would never remember. It was the dirtiest thing they could say about him, and would often illicit laughter from other patrons. He had no idea why.
“Don’t let me catch you slacking off in the backroom,” she would often say, as if the backroom were the boy’s favorite spot. “If you do, it’s double duty for the lavatory.” The boy would often think how funny it was that she would give double duty to clean other people’s duty, but he never said so. It would probably get him slapped.
After the rooms, the boy swept the inn’s kitchen, the serving area, under all the tables and chairs, and the front foyer. After, it was wiping down all those tables and chairs with ratty rags. It never seemed to do much. After all, for all the years the furniture had served guests and patrons, the boy was certain they all had been stained with enough alcohol to make them impervious to any other stain. By this time, a few villagers would wander into the inn looking for breakfast, and the boy quickly made sure they were comfortable and took their orders. Perhaps the only thing the boy wasn’t allowed to do was cook, surprisingly enough. Ariste had allowed it once. The omelet had turned to a scrambled mess that nearly caught fire. The boy was throttled for that.
After the morning’s food was delivered, it was the boy’s responsibility to lift cartons of milk, cheese, and bread into the storeroom. He had only stolen a small bit of bread once, and blamed the evidence on rats. He was still struck with a frying pan. That one left quite the bruise on his shoulder.
Ariste always put on a face when serving guests that might convince them that she adored owning her own inn and tavern. Being the center of Olvaren gossip and news delighted her to no end. She indeed spread those rumors around. Some man sleeping with a woman other than his wife, the strange religion of some traveler, the finances of some person the boy hardly knew. And, at the very least, the ‘fact’ that the boy was a scab that had no place with the other children of the village and even other slaves. (Yes, there were other slaves, but the boy had never met them. He wasn’t allowed outside without a leash, which is why he enjoyed cleaning the stables so much.) Always with the name-calling. She never called the boy by his name. Useless boy. Good for nothing waste of flesh. ‘Bastard child’ was a rare treat. She had deemed it proper to explain to the boy what that one meant once, but considering he’d never met his parents, he wasn’t sure that one was true.
That wasn’t to say she didn’t have her tender moments. Very rarely, of course. She would take the him shopping for clothes, keeping the leash around the boy’s neck and a sharp eye out for his thieving fingers at the market. As if the boy had thieving fingers; he’d never taken anything that didn’t belong to him in his life. Well, maybe once or twice. Slaves in Olvaren were known for their ‘deviant behavior’ (the boy didn’t know what that meant at first), so it must be true of Aeo. Cheap, itchy flax shirts and pants, thin soled shoes for a few copper pieces. Good enough for her, so good enough for him.
About midday, the man of the house usually showed himself. Horthoon. Drunken, sloppy, drooling Horthoon. Ariste’s good-for-nothing husband. The whole village knew of his drinking problems, even more than everyone knew the boy to be a lazy Aurion. How she put up with this physical embodiment of laziness the boy had no clue. She certainly didn’t let the boy off the hook. Harthoon 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. Especially harassing the inn’s patrons. For some reason he felt attracted to the pretty ladies that walked through the door, despite the ring on his finger. Yet Ariste never did hit Harthoon with much force. Harthoon’s favorite wooden mug always brimmed with beer, and he made sure the boy filled it at every opportunity, even at two or three in the afternoon.
Harthoon’s favorite past times were kicking at the boy when disturbed (which happened often, considering how much alcohol he consumed), mumbling to himself, and pouring alcohol into the boy’s face for a laugh until people couldn’t smell the difference between them. In the middle of an Ariste chastising, Harthoon would sometimes stumble into it and apply the physical violence to the boy himself. The man struck uncontrollably, sometimes missing completely, sometimes with such force as to knock the boy flat on his back. Ariste would lightly scold him for doing so for some reason, as if she wanted to do it herself.
Sometimes, when completely slobbered out of him mind in the middle of the night, Harthoon would find the boy attempting to sleep. He would sit himself on the ground, wake the boy 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 the boy drunk just by the smell of it. The boy never knew how to manage this or where it came from. Perhaps he hated Ariste just as much as he did. 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 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 midnight, it was time for bed just to rise at six o’clock to start all over again. Maybe the bags around his eyes made people think he slept too much. Maybe that’s why they all called him lazy.
Ariste never slept. Not when the boy slept, at least. She threw him to bed, then threw him right back out again. What drove the woman the boy couldn’t fathom. Maybe she ran on cruelty. Maybe slapping the boy gave her strength. Many of the bruises on his arms and back belonged to her, and she added to them on a regular basis.
The idea of freedom had occurred to the boy at some moments, when it got bad enough. Maybe he could run away, get as far as the highway and manage to get to the next town without being noticed. He’d heard there was a border somewhere, and that if he crossed it, he could be free. But he’d heard traders talk about it as if it were weeks away, and the boy was certain he couldn’t hide for weeks and weeks without being discovered and sent right back to Ariste and Harthoon. No, there was a single choice for the boy. Up. Up the mountain trail and to the forests and jungles on the other side. It was another country on the other side. If he could find a way to carry himself to the other side of the mountain without freezing, he could be free and never work in a dirty inn again.
But he never dared try. He’d be caught. He’d freeze to death. There’s no way a trader would carry him over to the other side in secret. He’d have to convince one first, and that was assuming Ariste wouldn’t catch wind of it. He’d be beaten for sure.
No, there was no way. Maybe when he grew up he could buy his freedom. He’d heard other slaves do that. Maybe he could too.
“Get out of bed, boy! Now!”
Another kick to the stomach. It knocked another dream of the sun right out of him.
“Uhhn,” the boy replied, doing his best to lift himself out of bed.
“You didn’t sweep the kitchen well at all! Crumbs and dirt everywhere! It’s a miracle no one was poisoned tonight! Go, do it right!”
Ariste struck him on the head rather sharply with the broomstick before throwing it in his lap. What time was it…? The boy peered over his shoulder out the window. Darkness. Perhaps he’d only been sleeping for a few minutes, he couldn’t tell. Ariste disappeared as fast as she’d appeared, but that wasn’t to say she wasn’t just around the corner ready to strike if he didn’t hurry. He slipped on his thin shoes and stood. He struck his head against the shelf.
He slipped on his shirt, grabbed the broom, and stumbled out the door of his closet into the dining area of the inn. All was quiet and dark save for a few candelabras that hung from the ceiling. Ariste was nowhere to be found. Lucky. He crossed the room quickly. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the dark, he was just afraid of the dark if someone came with it.
In the kitchen, a single lantern burned dimmly above crates of potatoes and carrots. He was hungry, certainly, but he wouldn’t be caught dead munching on one. Instead, he pushed the closest crate away from the door and entered. From what he could see of the floor, it wasn’t all that bad, besides the fact that the room smelled like rotting fruit and dirty dishwater. Maybe a few stray dust bunnies and chopped vegetables lined the floor beneath the bar and sink. The boy sighed. He could feel his eyelids pushing down on themselves, but he pressed on, jamming the broom into the space between the floor and the side of the side table. If he hurried, it wouldn’t take him long.
Brush after brush after brush. So boring. He could feel himself get into a rhythm that didn’t actually get anything done. He shook his head back and forth. Snap out of it. Get this done right and you can sleep. The boy knelt down to get at the debris underneath the stove. Ariste especially hated having anything beneath her stove. There were a few stray crumbs there in the darkness – maybe that was what she exploded at. He tossed the broom underneath to get at the wall and pull everything out. Wouldn’t quite fit.
Warily, he placed his hand on the stove. It was cold. He lowered himself to his belly and shoved the broom inside.
Then, suddenly, everything went completely dark.
The boy turned his head to the lantern. Completely spent. The boy growled and stood to his feet. He couldn’t sweep if he couldn’t see. The boy wasn’t allowed to use matches. Usually. But the thought of waking Ariste just to light the lantern filled him with dread. He scratched his arm. He didn’t want another bruise.
The boy knew where Ariste kept them. The shelf just above the stove. He blindly lifted his arms up and found the edge of the cupboard door. It was filled with square boxes, and he only needed one specifically. Not that one, not that one… A tiny one reached his fingers. He pulled it down, slid the lid open. Matchsticks. Small and thin. He’d never lit one himself, but he’d seen Ariste do it dozens of times. Just strike the black bit against the box and it should light into a small flame. Simple enough.
The boy crossed the room. He clambered up on top of the potato crate, careful not to actually step or kneel on any of them. The lantern still smoked lightly, but only a few red embers remained on the tiny wick. He could only hope the lantern still had enough oil. He took one match, and pressed it against the box.
Strike one. Nothing. Strike two. Nothing. Strike three…
In a poof, it burst alight.
He quickly thrust the match into the lantern, pressing it against the tiny wick. Nothing happened. Wait, I’m supposed to make the wick bigger. With his other hand, he fumbled around the lantern until he found the knob. It spun, and the wick raised up, lighting up immediately.
“Good,” the boy whispered. He then pulled out the small still-burning matchstick. Just as Ariste had done many times, the boy shook the match to make it go out.
It didn’t go out. He shook it again.
The flame grew bigger.
He couldn’t drop it. He’d catch something on fire, for sure. But it dropped lower and lower, close to his fingers.
He shook it one more time.
He felt the heat. He dropped the match. But the fire remained. The small candle-like flame attached itself to the boy’s finger like a drop of water.
“No, no! Get off!”
He shook his hand. The flame grew bigger, spreading up his finger and onto the back of his hand. It felt warm, just like the dream of the sun.
“Get off!” the boy cried.
He shook his hand faster. Too fast. It swung upwards, striking the lantern. With a clatter, the lantern fell back behind the crate of potatoes. The boy quickly jumped down from the crate and ran to the sink. The fire was still spreading from his hand up his arm. It even caught his shirt, and started burning the cloth.
“No, no, no!”
He could hardly see, but the flames actually helped him find the sink knobs. He turned them on and immediately doused his hand; the flames disappeared. He tossed water onto his arm and patted out the fire; at last, those flames went out as well. In the darkness, he could hardly see his hand. He imagined the skin melting like cheese, wrinkling and peeling like the skin of a tomato. He felt it up and down, again and again… Nothing. No pain. Not even a burning sensation. His sleeve was charred and stiff, but his arm was fine.
He sighed. How strange.
He smelled smoke. Then he saw light. Dim at first, but then quickly rising.
“Ah! No, no!”
The potato crate burst into flame.
Whether it was the dropped match or the fallen lantern, it hardly mattered.
“What in hell’s name is going on in here, boy! I heard-”
Then Ariste screamed.
“Y-You stupid boy! You monster! Get the bucket, get it now!”
The boy looked around. What bucket?
“Move!” Ariste cried, charging towards the sink. “Move, you idiot!”
She flung the boy to the ground with one hand, and filled the bucket in the sink as quickly as the faucet would allow… which wasn’t fast at all, truth be told. In the meantime, Ariste filled the room with obscenities, most of which were directed at the boy in no particular order.
“You Aurion bastard child!” she cried, for example. “Ahh! What did I tell you about matches, you stupid boy!?”
The boy sat on the ground, slightly dumbfounded. He watched the fire burning faster and faster, catching onto more of the crates. One of the crates was filled with ceramic pots and thatch to keep them protected—that went up in a burst of intense heat rather quickly.
It felt like a dream. The dream of the sun. With all his heart he knew he shouldn’t wish it, but he wanted the fire to rise higher. Burn brighter. More intensely. Maybe even burn his arm again, and spread further, like an orange snake slithering across his skin. Ariste’s shouts droned in and out, like a mesmerizing pattern of sounds, consumed just like the wooden crates in the uncontrollable dance of the burning heat.
Somewhere in the midst of this hallucination, Harthoon had entered the room, panic growing in his eyes. The boy had never seen him so alert before. He took his coat and tried stamping out the fire. The water bucket filled, Ariste took it and threw it against the fiery inferno. To everyone’s shock, most of which the boy’s, the flames seemed to devour the water like oil, bursting up against the ceiling and further into the room.
“Y-You did this!” Ariste shouted, no longer able to control the situation. But this she could control. She grabbed the boy by the shirt and hauled him across the room and out the door. With a thud, the boy landed against the bar, hitting his head against the wood and making him dizzy.
“I’ll strangle you for this, boy, you hear me! I’ll kill you if this place burns down! You hear me!”
She wore soft slippers. She kicked the boy hard in the stomach. Nothing felt soft.
“You… You stupid son of a bitch,” Harthoon said, more intensely than the boy had ever heard before. He added an effective kick of his own against the boy’s arm.
Ariste bent down and threw her fist at the boy’s face. It connected. The boy felt his brain in the back of his head. She hauled the boy up by his shirt again, and threw him towards the door as hard as she could. The boy tripped and fell against chairs and a table.
“Go and get the constable, you idiot!” she screamed. “And don’t come back without help!”
She and Harthoon quickly scrambled back into the kitchen to try putting out the fire again. The boy struggled to his feet, unable to see. Mostly. His eye was swelling up. He stumbled to the door, unfastened the locking bar, and flung it open. Frozen air blasted his face as he walked out into the cold.
A thought occurred to him as he stared out into the dark.
Forget the constable. Forget the fire. Forget Ariste and Harthoon.
It doesn’t matter anymore, he thought to himself. I’m never coming back.
No one travels across the Falas Mountains during the night, especially in the midst of torrential snow fall. No one who knew better. Even those with a sense of urgency to cross rarely stepped foot above the frost line after sunset if they wished to see the same sun rise again. Common reason suggested the mighty winds that passed swiftly through the difficult roads the primary suspect in every wayfarer’s disappearance since permanent winter fell on this jagged patch of earth ages ago. But even the most unwary traveler wore a coats of fur in these parts. No, something much more sinister lived in the crags and caverns, and everyone within leagues knew it. And those that didn’t know it were soon informed.
Despite this, a lone figure shivered in the cold among the towering fir trees, blindly treading slopeward, away from the village of Olvaren at the base of the mountain. A boy. A sensible being might think him foolish and stupid, and drag him back away from hypothermia or worse. He wore no coat or jacket, but the rags of a slave, with thin leather soles the only thing keeping his feet from the snow.
But there was no going back. He couldn’t. The bruises on his arms, the swelling black eye, and the dried blood clinging to the side of his right leg proved he no longer belonged anywhere. Death on his own terms. Those were the thoughts that passed through his trembling mind. Either he made it to freedom on the other side of Falas, or… He’d find peace in the hands of the Goddess.
Simple as that.
The frigid air of the pass embraced the lone boy like a blanket made of glass. Whether his toes still existed he wasn’t completely sure. Ice clung to his hair, and the wind stung his face like jagged needles made of stone.
It doesn’t matter, he thought to himself. I’m not going back.
Despite the lateness of the hour and the absence of the moon, the snow reflected enough light to give the boy some idea of the trail ahead of him. Or lack of one. The boy could no longer tell. The howling blizzard that surrounded him blinded him, especially to any creatures that might dwell in the forests beyond.
His hands slowly lost feeling. He lifted them to his lips and blew; the warmth brought feeling back for a moment. The wind sapped it away in an instant.
What else did the men at the inn say about the mountain? Wolves, packs of them, roamed the hills searching for any opportunity to steal from the shepherds’ flocks. Woolly bears lived close to the thermal rivers, smart enough to wait besides the unmeltable torrents for an upstream-jumping fish or two. Eagles with discerning vision made homes atop the trees, soaring down from lofty heights for food. And every so often, hunters—the ones that braved the trek without camping the night—would take aim at moose and deer that lay trapped between the frozen rock of the mountain and the predators of the canyons. All these creatures of creation stood for symbols of the goddess Tiathys’s power, and reflected her diverse attributes of strength, cunning, and endurance. At least, that’s what Her priests taught whenever one would give lessons at the inn. When given time (which wasn’t often), the boy used to sit and listen to the sermons, and wonder if the goddess had time to give a slave. Maybe now he would find out.
According to tales, however, there lived in these mountains a terrible creation that had no place in Tiathys’s domain, and profaned Her mountain. Every so often, when the priests had the monetary means to do so, the call would go forth for the strongest and most resourceful hunters in the province to hunt a beast known as a mephandras. Twenty foot tall in size and terrible in temperament, the boy had heard it described as a feral bear with scales and spikes in place of fur and a tusked maw that could rend a man to pieces in a second. Just as rare as the call, even rarer were stories of successful hunts against this baleful monstrosity. According to one such tale, a group of intrepid hunters once lured a mephandras to the foot of a steep cliff with a series of explosive traps. Cornered by men with firearms and spears, the beast roared—certainly loud enough to alert the village below—and made the hunters deaf through the sheer ferocity of it. Nevertheless, it was trapped. With a single explosive charge placed some hours earlier high above on the cliffside, the hunters brought the whole mountain down upon it. When the smoke and dust cleared, the creature seemed dead, but that wasn’t enough for the hunters. They quickly filled it with bullets and spearheads enough to bring down an entire herd of elk, and even made use of one last explosive on top of its head.
It took days to harvest even a portion of the creature’s poisonous meat, hide, and colossal bones, which were quickly promised at great value to the province’s merchants. It might have brought prosperity to everyone in the process. It might have ended the tale happily there.
But the mephandras had a mate.
Whether the village watch been drunk, sleeping, or both, it didn’t matter. An even larger malevolent specimen tracked the hunters from the mountain, and brought death and destruction with it. Into the midst of an impromptu festival held to celebrate the hunter’s great accomplishment, the creature charged, killing the hunters and many of the townsfolk immediately. It bucked and heaved and roared, tearing through stone buildings and storefronts like a child through so many wooden blocks. The villagers retreated to the town hall and rallied as much defense as possible, and to their surprise, managed to hold the creature at bay. Or, perhaps, the mephandras wasn’t interested in carnage for its own sake. It found the bones of its beloved placed in the village square, and proceeded to mourn quite violently for hours. Bullets were fired from the hall, but none found purchase into this great creature’s hide.
It took three days for the creature to finally lose interest in the village and the bones. It took the largest bone in its razor-filled mouth and departed for the mountain. Where it wandered no villager desired to find out. The rest of the now-frozen carcass of the slain mephandras was never sought after, and the remaining spoils of the hunt only just covered the costs necessary to repair the damage wrought to the village.
Or so the tale was told. Was it true? Apparently, many hundreds of years had passed since. Trackers and merchants that visited Olvaren insisted they knew the descendants of those slain hunters, and the claw marks made by some fell beast could be seen quite clearly on the walls of the old hall that had once served as the village center. And while hunters were still hired to hunt the mephandras every decade or so, not a single one had been spotted for over a century.
Perhaps they were all gone. Perhaps the mountain was not as dangerous as everyone in the village made it seem. True or not, the boy’s thoughts centered on encountering such a monster on the mountain. Perhaps it would find the boy, and put him out of his misery. Perhaps it would carry him over the mountain and place him on the other side, right as rain.
Or maybe the boy was going out of his mind from the cold.
The boy raised his hands to his face. He couldn’t feel a thing. His teeth had long since passed chattering. Every step he took was uncertain, since he’d long lost feeling in his legs.
I’m not going back. I’m not going back.
A howl echoed across the snow, just barely audible above the frigid wind. The boy didn’t hear it, too obsessed with the cold. Then a second howl cried out much louder and clear to the boy’s right side. This snapped him out of his frozen trance.
For the first time in several hours, the boy’s feet stopped walking. It felt strange.
He waited. He watched the fir trees dance back and forth, the giant snowflakes falling in large clumps as stars from the sky. Something watched him in the trees. He didn’t know how, but he knew it. Or maybe delirium had set in.
A shadow passed through the trees, perhaps fifty yards away. Too dark to tell. The boy wasn’t afraid. His fear had been frozen away. He simply stood like a pole buried in dirt. His eyes felt tired, somehow burning when the rest of his body solidified. He’d been walking for such a long time. Perhaps the shadow would let him sleep.
It approached. The image of a bear. A mephandras. It had to be. Its jagged scales whipped in the wind, its deep-throated growl echoing across the snow.
I’m not going back.
The rigid boy suddenly felt gravity. A terrible weight. His knees could no longer sustain themselves. He felt the world spin, and its surface collided with him. The snow gave place for him as if he belonged there all along. His perception darkened to match the night sky, and he felt himself drift off into a sea of starlight.
A burning sun. Gentle, terrible. It looked ready to warm the boy’s skin, wanted to fall upon him and give him comfort, yet none came. He froze instead, buried in a torrent of snow and ice. Like water, it suffocated him, and he tried to claw his way up to reach the light. But it remained distant. Like the sun at noon day, as a child tries to reach for the sun, never able to touch it.
A terrible thought arose in the mind of the frozen boy.
“I know. He’s lucky. He’s still breathing, isn’t he?”
Another thought rose.
“No, you are not eating him. That’s why I’m here, to make you better food, remember?”
A third image crossed his mind.
“No, Pick isn’t eating him either! He’s not your dessert, and that’s final. Go check the stables if you’re so hungry, eh? The stew will be done shortly.”
A great beast snorted in response.
The boy felt warm fur beneath his fingertips, the weight of a thick blanket covering him, and an enormous pillow behind his head. The smell of roasting meat filled his lungs. Something was very wrong. Besides, of course, the fact that he didn’t have the strength to even raise a finger. He tried opening his eyes, but the fire light proved too much to handle. He couldn’t feel his toes… exactly. Something pressed against the bottoms of his feet, warming them.
He wasn’t dead. Not yet.
A strange concept emerged in the boy’s mind, as if placed there by something else.
A voice answered the thought.
“If you mean to eat him, absolutely not. If you mean to be his friend, then… fine. Warm him up a little. But let the poor boy sleep for a while, will you?”
A monster approached. Large enough to block the light. Its footfalls cracked to stone and slid across dirt, and a great body came to rest against the boy’s side. Then, a large weight settled across his legs, and the smell of a wet dog arose. The boy tried to open his eyes wide, and a face came into blurry view.
A face? What made the boy think it was a face? Not a human face. Wait, a dog’s face. Or was it a wolf? It was too big to be a wolf’s face; the boy thought it a matter of fact that wolves do not grow to such sizes. The head of this wolf lay as large as an apple crate, as large as a wolf should be by itself. A great black nose sniffed at the air like bellows, a gray-and-brown muzzle sat across the boy’s lap, and bright reflective eyes darted to and fro to some other points of interest in the room in which the boy lay. The boy strained to lift his head, and saw a pair of furry ears curiously rotate as it heard a myriad of homemade noises.
The wolf growled as if tired. The vibrations shook the boy’s bones. His fear may have been frozen before, but like the rest of him, it began to thaw. The anxiety grew quickly. Try as he might to still his timid voice, he couldn’t help a small squeak of panic.
The wolf’s closest eye quickly switched upon him, and the whole head rose and cocked to one side.
A thought rose in the boy’s mind.
Mostly true. Except the boy did not feel like smiling. A voice then called from further inside the room, as if alerted by the thought in the boy’s mind.
“Are you sure, Pick? Is he awake?”
The wolf bent his great head down and sniffed at the boy; the stale, humid dog-breath might as well have been steam. It growled and yelped a quiet affirmative. Then, the prediction came to pass: the wolf’s tongue emerged and shoved the boy’s hair to the side with a single terrible lick. The wolf was tasting him! The boy tried to lift his arms to fight against it, but they remained uselessly at his side.
“Ah, he is awake!”
A dark figure appeared in place of the firelight, and stood above the boy. It certainly didn’t look wolf-shaped. No, a man. Everything was still blurry. The man knelt down in front of the boy and rested his hand on the boy’s forehead. Then his nose, and his ears.
“Well, my boy, looks like you’re not a popsicle. That’s good news, right?”
At this moment, the boy realized he’d been shivering terribly. He opened his mouth, and the cold of the mountain fell out of it.
“Wh-Wh… whe… wh-where…”
“Hey, it’s all right, no need to worry yourself, I promise. Just relax and warm up. You were out in the cold for far too long.”
The boy blinked, and his stomach twisted. The man came forward and sat himself down at the boy’s side, pushing the giant wolf away in the process. Not only did the wolf not straight away eat the man in response, the wolf simply growled in protest and stepped over both the man and the boy. It then laid its great body down and placed its head across the boy’s lap from the other side. Its paw gently dug against the fur blanket, and the wolf watched him with an adorable brown eye like a patient puppy. The boy wasn’t sure which one to be afraid of first, man or beast.
The boy had no idea what to make of the man. He dressed like a scholar or a teacher, in fine trousers, a loose-fitting doublet, and a thin leather jacket with a wide collar. He also wore thin spectacles that surely gave him an age beyond his own. He didn’t seem at all like the hardy specimen of manhood that would live this high up a mountain. His beardless tan face reflected something foreign, though from where Aeo had no idea. His words were very plain, however, giving no hint.
“By the Goddess, I can’t believe you decided to climb Falas in a blizzard like this,” the man said. “You’re one brave boy. Put you down for a whole day. You must have been running away from something fairly frightening to force you this far up.”
The man placed a hand on the boy’s face, just beneath his left eye. The touch reminded the boy of the terrible bruise that dominated his face, and the fact that blood was slowly rushing to the spot.
“I’m guessing you didn’t do this to yourself.”
A thought rose in the boy’s mind.
“Yes, Pick,” the man said to the wolf, petting its nose. “Something like that.”
The boy’s eyes widened. The man could ‘hear’ the thoughts too. The man noticed the boy’s silent stare and smiled, pointing to his temple.
“I’m sure you’ve never heard a wolf ‘think’ before, have you?”
The boy slowly shook his head.
“Apologies, I suppose we should introduce ourselves. My name is Leon Sirelu…” The man placed a hand on the wolf’s nose. “…this is Pick. And you’ll meet his mama Shera when she comes back. Welcome to our little home on the mountain.”
Pick gurgled and licked the fur blanket.
Leon laughed at the thought.
“Yes, you little scoundrel,” said Leon, leaning over to pet Pick. “I’m sure you’ll be great friends.”
“Wh-why… Why d-does…” the boy whispered.
Leon waited patiently.
“H-How does… h-he… talk… in m-my head?”
“I don’t know for certain,” Leon answered. “It’s curious, isn’t it? I’ve actually tested a few things with Pick. Did you know you can hear them from about half a mile away? And they can whisper too, so you’re the only one who can hear them. It’s as plain as if they were talking out loud. Though some of the images they use tend to get… lost in translation. Especially from you, eh Pick? It takes some practice to understand sometimes.”
Pick blinked a few times and started to pant.
“That’s right, it’s fun to talk.”
“Wh-What… d…does… g-green…” the boy attempted to ask.
“I believe that means he’s happy,” said Leon. “So when he howls, or talks, it makes him happy. Isn’t that right Pick?”
Pick let out a small airy howl.
“All right, down to business,” said Leon, bending forward. His hands reached under the blankets and lifted the boy’s arm up and out. Leon grasped his hand; the warmth filled it immediately, and made the boy’s skin burn. “Can you feel my hand?”
The boy nodded.
“Good. Hmm, you’re still cold. I’ll get you a couple warming pads for your fingers. At least you managed to keep them warmer than your toes. How about them? Can you feel the heat down there?”
The muscles felt tense and sore. But the fur blanket slowly wiggled back and forth.
“Okay. Try not to move them too much right now. I’m sorry to say you’ve got a mild case of frostbite there. They’ve started to turn a might black. Your ears, too. It’ll take some time for the right color to come back to them.”
Leon peeled the fur blanket back, and lifted a rubber bottle from the boy’s chest, testing its temperature. So that’s where the weight came from.
“B-Black?” the boy whispered frightfully.
“Oh, only slightly, nothing to worry too much about,” said Leon. “Nothing some time can’t make better. I’ll go refill a couple of these bottles in a few minutes. In the meantime, get some rest. I guarantee you’ll start feeling better after a good nap. And I’ll leave Pick to make sure you stay toasty warm.” He pat Pick’s nose. “Can you do that for me, boy?”
“That’s right. Just don’t light him on fire, right?”
Pick let out a series of grunts that sounded like dull laughter. Leon lifted himself, but stopped midway.
“Oh, before I go… Do you have a name, my boy?”
The boy cleared his throat.
“Aeo, s-sir,” he said.
“Aeo. Wonderful! Very good.” Leon jumped to his feet. “And we have some elk stew cooking over the fire if you’re interested. I’m sure you are! So don’t fall back asleep just yet, perhaps? You won’t want to miss it. A full belly makes sleep all the better anyway.”
Leon rose to walk to the other side of the room. Aeo might have stayed quiet and went back to sleep, or waited until the food was done. But there was something deep inside him that needed attention, something that Leon would certainly need to know.
“W-Wait, L-Leon, sir… Um, I…”
“Yes?” Leon said.
“I… Uh, I n-need… to u-use the toilet.”
“Oh. Of course you do, of course, um… I suppose we should get that figured out now, shall we? Don’t want you standing just yet. Oh, where did I put that bucket…?”
With food, water, (an empty bladder), and a warming body, Aeo slept straight through the night, even with a giant wolf at his side and a strange academic man watching over him. Though, in all honesty, he’d climbed the mountain to give his life to the Goddess. Maybe she was watching over him the whole time.
A depressing set of thoughts swirled in his head even before he awoke, vivid dreams filling his head. They were different than his dreams of the sun, certainly dark in more ways than one. He dreamed he stood at the top of the mountain, close enough to tumble down into freedom. But as in most nightmares, something was chasing him. He heard the violent barking of hounds, the shouts of the slave owners calling after him and demanding he return. He cast his gaze backwards, and saw them in the distance, perhaps racing towards him from the treeline. He then turned towards the very summit of Falas, and looked down to see only the misty mountain peaks and the mystery beyond. The merchants that traveled the pass told stories of a jungle on the other side, a rich and untamed land that couldn’t compare to the valley lands where the village lay.
He would travel there. He would find freedom there. Without thought, Aeo took a step forward and fell down the snowy cliffs. Nothing hurt him in this dream, of course, at least at first. He felt weightless as he flew just inches above the snow. He could no longer hear the dogs or the men following him, just the sound of rushing wind cascading past his face.
A cliff face was fast approaching. Aeo tried his best to pull up, or maneuver to the side to avoid it. Nothing worked. Inescapable. And just before he collided with the rocks and snow… He woke up.
He’d had such drifting dreams before. There was always something concrete that made these dreams end. The ground, a wall, a tree, a cliff face, a loud noise. Aeo could deal with these dreams if they ended any other way. But they always woke him up with a start, even in the early hours of the day.
This strange morning, however, the realization quickly hit him that he wasn’t sleeping in a bed, even the tattered bed in the place he’d once called home. Aeo tugged at his arms to rub his eyes. Heavy weights stopped them from rising.
Oh. The water bottles.
Though no longer warm unto themselves, they felt as heavy and comfortable as the fur blanket that covered them. With some effort, he hauled an arm out from beneath the pair covering it, and cleared his eyes of sleepies. Pain shot from his face at the slightest touch—the bruise. He carefully avoided it as best he could.
Tired. Very tired. The kind of exhaustion that comes from hours of physical exertion. An aware kind of tired that leaves the body useless but the mind clear and active. And a tinge afraid at that particular moment. Finally able to move his head about without too much pain, Aeo looked further to his left. His ears didn’t deceive him. A giant furry monster slept comfortably against the corner of the wall on a pile of furs, curled up all together and breathing steadily. How old was this wolf named Pick? It wasn’t like Aeo could judge it from the thoughts Pick put into his head. Maybe he was still young, like a little kid? He didn’t seem at all hesitant to place his head in Aeo’s lap, after all.
Aeo lay with his back against the sloped back wall of a very wide cave and examined his surroundings as he lay musing. The surprisingly flat stone floor gently curved into the walls as if crafted on purpose, although the cave walls themselves weren’t nearly as neatly organized. Cracks and pockets filled the four walls, and as many as were large enough were filled with unlit wax candles and small charms of varying sizes, colors, and complexity. The total weight of the mountain hovered above the walls, covered with just as many cracks and dotted with the occasional small stalactite and fabric covering, creating a feeling of a well-worn underground dwelling. Opposite of Aeo’s furry resting place, the stone wall curved about halfway across the perimeter until it continued as wooden slats sealed with mud cement. A human-sized entry sat in the middle of the wooden wall, while a larger barn-like door with a rope loop ‘doorknob’ surrounded the human one in combination. It was no surprise who the larger door belonged to, though how the wolves might have helped in the construction of this cavernous dwelling, or even if they did at all, Aeo didn’t know. In the middle of the room was a large campfire ring, complete with a roasting spit and holder for pots of all sizes. And against the wall on the left sat wooden crates and boarded boxes of all sizes, no doubt filled with food and other supplies.
The wax candle crevasses continued along this wall, although a few of them were lit. And, strangely enough, there seemed to be a purple light being cast onto the wall without source from the center of these candles.
Magic. Real magic.
Aeo knew of the concept of magic, the most spectacular happening, of course, in far away lands. Every so often a ‘magician’ would wander into the inn offering his or her talents as entertainment for a few coins and a place to spend the night. These talents would often be nothing more than cards tricks and sleights of hand. But Aeo and other children had loved them, and naturally couldn’t figure out for their very lives how such tricks were accomplished.
The only time a real wizard had come into town was during the hunts. Their prices weren’t cheap, as Aeo heard rumored, but their skills were often invaluable to other hunters with their abilities to study the habits and trails of the animals and beasts of the mountain, as well as creating strange enchantments for the hunter’s weapons. They didn’t perform for children—they could start campfires fires with nothing but a flick of a wrist, read people’s thoughts, and even turn iron into gold as payment for housing and food. Of course, the ‘iron to gold’ skill was the most often requested of the wizard, though, according to them, was a limited ability and could only be done in very small quantities. Probably wasn’t true, but who knows?
Aeo wished he could turn dirt into gold. He could have bought his own freedom without freezing himself to death.
The man named Leon lay sleeping in the right corner of the room, away from the wooden entrance to the cave. Above him were also lit candles and a strange almost mist-like purple light emanating from them. He didn’t have the least bit idea as to its purpose.
Aeo layed back, fumbling his arm back underneath the water bottles that leaned against his side. What a strange place to sleep, he thought to himself. A dark thought then filled his mind: would Leon force him to go back to the village? His fists clenched. If so, he’d run as fast as he could for the summit and fall down the other side until he reached the forest beyond.
There’s no way. I’m not going back. Even if I freeze to death, I’m not going back.
The enormous door of the cave quietly creaked. Aeo jumped at the sound.
For a moment, there were no other sounds, although as Aeo’s hearing focused, he could hear the roar of the endless wind outside. His stomach turned. Something was out there.
The door opened. The small door, in fact. With it came a light yet lively voice.
“…all the way up the mountain by himself! I know! Stunning!”
Aeo’s eyes widened. It was no human who stepped through the door, but a curious round creature that came hopping into the room like a frog. A spherical frog? Its big spotty black eyes scanned the room for a moment, and hopped inside as you’d expect a frog to hop. Behind it then hopped a smaller frog of the same round form, full of energy and speaking rather loudly with its wide green lips.
“Where is the leet-il hoo-man, Mama?”
The bigger frog turned and put a webbed finger to her lips.
“Hush, little toad,” she said. “You’ll wake all the sleeping folk!”
“But I aw-weady woke She-wa!”
“I am aware, and I’m surprised Shera didn’t gobble you up!” the older frog whispered. The more Aeo listened to her, the more he sounded like a right and proper lady… er, lady-frog. No burbling or frothing at the mouth, as Aeo could imagine a frog speaking. At least in comparison to the adorable small frog. “The boy needs all the rest he can get after his terrible ordeal.”
“What’s a ow-deal?” the littlest frog whispered.
“Trouble, dear Heem, it means trouble.”
The elder frog then hopped to the center of the room, stepping towards the remnants of the once-roaring fire. She kicked at a few of the errant pieces of char for a moment. Then the frog leaned back for a moment as if gathering air. A lot of it. More than it would seem the little frog would be able to take in by herself. Then something clicked quite audibly. Something in the frog’s throat? No doubt a spark, for the frog then belched forward and her mouth erupted in a bright errant flame. It seemed like more than just simple flame, however, as a thick super-heated substance also leaked from the frog’s mouth and brought the campfire to a mighty consistency immediately. Aeo caught the scent of nauseous gas, but it soon passed. And as abrupt and shocking as the display appeared, Aeo heard nothing but a small burst of wind.
“Ah, there we go,” the frog said without skipping a beat. “Much better. Heem, my dear, would you grab a few logs for the fire?”
“Yes, Mama,” the little frog said, hopping to the wood pile next to the crates.
Aeo suddenly realized why the frogs looked so round—each wore a tightly knit coat of thick fur around themselves, which the female frog then shed and placed close to the fire. Beneath the coat the frog wore a tight dress of a strange dazzling multi-colored material. She walked on two feet as gracefully as any human, though to keep balance while hopping occasionally dropped to all fours without a problem. Her green skin glistened a little in the firelight as her large yellow eyes with dark vertical pupils expertly scanning the room. She certainly had the wide mouth of a frog, thick green whiskers sticking out the sides somehow adding wisdom to the wrinkles of her face. She stood about a foot and a half, maybe two, and the little one gathering firewood—little sticks and twigs, from the look of it—stood even lower off the ground.
She hopped slowly towards Leon and noticed he was still fast asleep beneath the glowing purple mist. She then hopped closer to Aeo, which instinctually made him pull his feet away. As much as they could move, considering the heavy water bottles and painful aching frostbite.
“Oh. Oh! Oh my! My poor boy!” the frog clapped her webbed hands in surprise. “How long have you been awake? You’ve probably been watching us the whole time! Well, bless the Goddess, I probably scared you silly by starting that fire, didn’t I?”
Aeo didn’t dare nod in agreement.
The frog-lady stepped passed Aeo’s feet towards his head.
“Hello, my dear!” she said enthusiastically, though quietly enough as to not wake Pick. She bowed as she approached. “My name is Hala, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance!”
“H-Hello,” Aeo squeaked.
“Leon told us all about you last night after you fell asleep,” Hala said. “My goodness, what a journey you took to reach us all the way out here! Of course, Shera had to carry you most of the way. It’s a miracle she found you. She told us she was searching for bighorns out of the treeline ridge when she saw a little human out there wandering all by himself. I have a feeling she wanted to eat you, but she carried you up here regardless! Wasn’t that so kind of her?”
“Eat me…?” Aeo whispered. “Wh-Who’s Shera?”
“Oh, you haven’t met her yet, that’s right!” Hala bent down into a squat in front of Aeo, then rose back up in a stretch. “She’s Pick’s Mama, and a right big wolf for sure! She certainly keeps us all safe from the nasty critters that roam the mountain, yes she does. She’s been tending to the bighorners all night long, the poor dear. She usually sleeps in this cave with Leon, but for some reason she decided to sleep in the barn! Isn’t that funny?”
Aeo decided it was not.
“The hoo-man a-wake?”
Up hopped the little frog, now shed of its fur coat as well. Her fur coat, Aeo noticed, since she wore a dress. This dress, however, was less conservative, more like a skirt and a top with the same mysterious material. She took a few steps towards Aeo’s face and folded her green little arms.
“The hoo-man isn’t leet-il,” she said. “He’s biiiig.”
“Well, he’s little to other humans, Heem dear,” Hala said, placing her hands on the little frog’s shoulders. “Aeo, this is Heem. She’s very excited to meet you! Heem, this is Aeo. Be very careful now, he’s not feeling very well at the moment. No jumping on him, okay? Perhaps later when he’s feeling up to it.”
“Piiiick!” Heem exclaimed, wasting no time hopping towards the wolf. Pick was indeed awake, eyeing the situation with interest. Before Heem could hop on his back, Pick whined and yawned big enough to devour the little frog in a single bite. Heem didn’t seem the least big concerned, and climbed up Pick’s neck to sit on his back. “Big floo-fie puppy!”
“Good to see you up, you young hound dog!” Hala said. “Sleep well?”
Pick growled and blinked. He almost looked bored, despite the tiny frog hopping on his back. He then looked over at Aeo.
Aeo looked down at his toes and tried to wiggle them. They felt inflamed and painful, even though they still felt frozen.
“I don’t… I don’t know,” Aeo said.
“Oh Pick,” said Hala. “He won’t be on his toes for a good long while. Frostbite is no little thing, after all! Why, I remember getting frostbite on my toes, I had to sit in the thermal spring for a week before I could start hopping again. As a matter of fact, that’s not a bad idea for young Aeo if someone could carry him there…”
A gruff voice then rose to fill the cave.
“Where do you think I filled up Aeo’s water bottles?”
“Oh dear,” said Hala. “Good morning Leon! I do hope we didn’t wake you… Though I’m certain we did.”
“Oh, don’t worry, you did,” he said with a chuckle, as he lifted himself to sit. Aeo had fallen asleep much earlier than Leon, and hadn’t seen him get dressed in the dark sleeveless shirt he now wore. “But I’m glad you did. I have a lot to do today, and I might as well get started.”
“More of those experiments of yours? You know, the longer you’re down in those caves, the more I start to worry about you falling into holes, or getting trapped from a cave-in, or blowing yourself up…”
“No need to worry yourself, Hala,” Leon replied. “Everything I do is perfectly safe. I’m simply studying plants and rocks, not spelunking.” He paused. “Well, maybe a little bit.”
“Hmm-umm,” said Hala, tapping the floor with her foot. Leon looked over at Aeo.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
Aeo shrugged, which was challenging to see from beneath the blankets.
“I’m cold, sir…” he said honestly.
“I’m sure you are. Thank you for starting the fire back up, Hala, that was very kind of you. I’ll go refill those water bottles for you shortly, Aeo, get you warmed up.”
As he lifted himself to get dressed, Hala hopped up.
“Not a problem at all, Mr. Sirelu!” said Hala. “I’m happy to help this human boy back on his feet!” She then turned to the little frog proudly sitting upon the wolf pup’s back. “All right, little Heem, it’s time for us to go clean the hot springs today. You promised you would!”
“Waaah!” cried Heem immediately, kicking her feet and pounding Pick’s back with her fists. “But I wanna ride Pick!”
This time, Aeo knew he could see irritation in Pick’s eyes as he rolled his head towards him.
“Pick has other duties, Heem, like taking care of Aeo while Leon is gone! Don’t make me go up there and get you!”
Aeo decided it was difficult to make out the individual emotions on the frogs’ faces without hearing the words they spoke, but it seemed as if Heem’s expressions changed from outrage to sadness and then quiet acceptance. The little frog hopped off of Pick’s back and made her way back to the campfire when she gingerly put on her sphere coat. Hala did the same, and spoke as she did so.
“It’s so wonderful to have you here with us, Aeo!” she said quite excitedly. “When you’re well enough to walk, I’d love for you to meet the rest of my family. They’re not as happy-sure as Heem and I are about more humans living up here, but I know you’ll make yourself a place here in no time!”
Hala stepped over to the wood pile and made it a point to throw one more small bundle into the campfire.
“No need to worry, Hala,” Leon said as he buttoned up a long-sleeved shirt he’d produced from a small crevasse in the wall. “I’ll take care of it.”
“If you’re sure, dear!” she said, her round form hopping towards the door. “We’ll see you later, Leon! Aeo! Pick!” They then disappeared through the door before closing it shut behind them.
“She’s such an interesting woman,” Leon said with a laugh. “So unlike the rest of her family.”
Pick sat up and started panting.
“Oh, don’t be annoyed,” Leon said. “You know Heem loves you, don’t you Pick?”
Pick growled once and laid back down on his fur blankets.
Aeo closed his eyes. Life was quickly losing sense.
Everything felt wonderful. The new water bottles felt so good on his skin, Aeo didn’t want to move anymore. Leon even placed water bottles on the sides of his head to keep his ears warm—he hadn’t realized just how dull and cold they’d been until warmth filled them. He didn’t even move when Pick came to lick his face with his enormous wet tongue.
“Uh…” Aeo whispered, gagging. “Y-Yeah… good boy.”
“Hey Picky,” said Leon, removing his jacket and replacing it with a light-brown buttoned dress shirt. “I need you to go and get Shera for me. Go feed the bighorners for her. Tell her I sent you, okay?”
Pick’s head drooped down low and his nose nuzzled up against Aeo’s side. He whined quietly.
“It’s all right. Aeo’s not going anywhere. You can watch over him in a little bit. I just need to speak with him and Shera for a while. Please? And close the door when you go?”
Pick’s shoulders drooped low, but he lifted himself off the ground and headed for the door. Standing on all four legs, the wolf pup stood a little taller than a full-grown lion, and Aeo knew he still had a lot of growing to do. The unlatched large door swung wide open, and Aeo expected the cold air from outside to blast inside the cave and suck all the warmth away. To his surprise, it didn’t at all, and not just because he was being smothered by hot spring water bottles. Pick closed the door shut and disappeared.
“There we go,” Leon said. “I was hoping I could talk to you now that you’re not frozen solid.”
Aeo frowned. Might as well put his cards on the table.
“You’re… not going to make me go back to the village, are you, sir?”
Leon placed his hands on his knees and leaned backwards.
“Well, there’s the question,” he said. “I didn’t wonder where you came from, but I did wonder where you received all those bruises. If you’re asking if I’ll kick you out when you’re frostbite heals, the answer is no. Of course not. But I wonder if you might tell me who you belong to. Do you have family? Friends? Anyone who might be searching for you?”
“No,” Aeo replied. “No one cares about me.”
Leon cast his eyes downwards.
“Is that right,” he replied.
“I’m not going back to Olvaren,” Aeo said flatly. “Never.”
“You say there’s no one there that cares about you,” Leon said quietly. “But someone hurt you. Now, I don’t know what caused it. But they took it too far, didn’t they? Quite the collection of bruises you have on you, kid. Nothing would have led you up here in night clothes otherwise.”
“I’m not a kid,” Aeo growled.
“Of course not. I apologize.”
Aeo didn’t reply. He shut his eyes. He suddenly wanted to sleep.
“It isn’t my business, of course. Just educated guesses, if you don’t mind me making them. But there is a reason I ask about what caused your travels up here.”
Leon cleared his throat.
“Have you ever heard of the mephandras?”
Aeo became very awake.
“They’re real?” he asked. “You’ve seen one?”
“Armored bears of unusual size?” Leon said with a chuckle. “No, I haven’t, actually. I’ve only heard word here and there that they used to live on this mountain. Truth be told, they haven’t been seen in decades, and there’s good reason for it.”
“The hunters.” Aeo said. “Right?”
“That’s right, sounds like you and I have the same sources. Hunters chased after them for hundreds of years and drove them right off the mountain. At least that’s what folk say. But it wasn’t just the hunters that did it.” Leon stretched his arm to the side. “Did you know a mephandras was actually a very intelligent beast? They didn’t have the mouths to form words, but they knew the giant wolves that lived up in these caves, and spoke with them regularly. At least that’s what Shera has told me.”
“They could speak?” Aeo said, his eyes wide.
“Well, in a manner of ‘speaking’,” Leon said, making quotes with his fingers. “As much as Pick can talk to us, in fragments and images. The giant wolves learned of these human hunters coming further and further up the mountain in search of the mephandras. Both the mephandras and the wolves knew that if humans ever discovered their dens up here they would find a reason to exterminate… well, everything. Just as they hunted for mephandras claws and teeth and pelts, they’d put bounties on the giant wolves. Traders would value their fur, hunters would keep trophies and glory, and adventurers would chase them right out of their homes, understand?”
Leon couldn’t help a laugh.
“Now I’m no adventurer. But you’re probably wondering what I’m doing up here.”
“Remind me to tell the tale later,” Leon said. “But, to continue: the mephandras knew that their homes were becoming more and more limited, their safety less and less guaranteed. But the wolves hadn’t been discovered yet. So in exchange for finding a safe home, the mephandras promised to leave and let the wolves have control of Falas.”
“The mephandras… left the mountain?” Aeo asked. “How?”
“Cautiously. And not alone. They were too large and too bulky to find their own way without being spotted by humans. No, the wolves promised the mephandras they would help them search for a new home in exchange for keeping the mountain free of hunters who searched for them. The wolves would lead the way while the remaining mephandras followed them off the mountain. If the wolves detected humans, they would… well… they would make the humans…”
<”We would put thoughts into their minds that would convince them to leave.”>
The large cavern door suddenly creaked open. If Pick had seemed like a gigantic creature, then what stepped through the opening made Aeo suddenly very afraid. The giant muzzle of a fully-grown wolf emerged, followed by a mountain of gray-ivory fur led by four powerful limbs. As high as the cave ceiling stood, the wolf nearly stood higher, and had to bend down a fraction to avoid skimming it with its pointed ears. And if it felt strange to receive images from Pick, then listening to the almost audible words of this wolf commanded all of Aeo’s attention as they entered his mind.
“That’s one way to put it. Good morning, Shera,” Leon said. “I was just telling Aeo about the meph-”
<”I know. The humans have always come very close to discovering our home, even when the mephandras kept them at bay. Without them and without most of my pack, it is a challenge to even keep watch.”>
At the same time the words dominated his thoughts, he swore he could ‘see’ the image of a trio of mephandras in the ‘background’, two gigantic bear-like creatures covered in tough scales and a tiny one rolling around in the snow. Merely images? Or memories? It made his head ache a bit from both words and images taking center stage in his head simultaneously.
“That’s right, Aeo,” Leon said. “The wolves led the mephandras towards a new home, but many followed them off the mountain and never came back. They must have found a new home themselves.”
Shera closed the door by gripping the rope ‘doorknob’ with her teeth, then circled and laid her great body down neatly in between the campfire and the wall of the cave. Alone she easily took up half the cave floor. She eyed Aeo up and down, and made him wish he wasn’t laying prone and vulnerable.
“This was… how many years ago, Shera? Fifty?”
<”More. I was young. This was our home then, and it is our home now. Pick and I will not leave it.”>
“That’s the problem, Aeo,” Leon said. “If humans ever find this place… Who knows what would happen. That’s why I have to ask if anyone would come looking for you. Not that they would be able to anymore, right Shera?” He looked up at her. “The blizzard would have hidden his tracks for sure. And his scent. No one would know where he disappeared to, and if they did know, they would think he was dead.”
As much as a wolf can look displeased, Shera did, and growled a bit as a thought entered Aeo’s mind.
“I think Aeo is as safe as they come. Considering no other human has come up this high before, I believe it’s safe to assume that everything is-”
Leon paused. His attention aimed squarely upon the great wolf.
Aeo heard nothing. Were his ears plugged? He couldn’t help but check them, silly as it was. He lifted himself up as best he could without losing balance of the many rubber containers that covered him. Something was wrong. Different, as if the air suddenly became dry. The feeling wasn’t painful at first, like having one of the rubber water bottles sit on top his head. But soon his ears started ringing, and a small headache entered his head through his temples. He tried to block it with his fingers, but they did nothing.
“I know you don’t like the idea of another human…” Leon stopped. “…but no one will follow him. If we give it some time maybe I can-” Another stop. “I understand that, but there’s his situation to consid-”
Shera became more agitated the more Leon spoke. At first she kept the growling to herself, but soon the growling turned into a snarl. Aeo finally understood, and he felt his heart in his throat. They were having a conversation without him. Shera was excluding him on purpose. The longer this phantom conversation continued, the more pale Leon’s face became, as if the wolf had complete control over him.
“Uhh…” Aeo whispered.
The pain in Aeo’s head grew worse. In fact, the headache in his temples began to spread to the front and his ears like a terrible sinus infection. It was a slow, steady process, like a knife being pushed into his mind. He tried to push the headache out of his forehead with his hands, but this made things worse. In fact, the headache seemed to spread to his hands, making his muscles contract involuntarily. Blood rushed to his head, making the bruise around his eye unbearable.
He felt he might drown.
Leon attempted to speak again.
“I… I know that,” he spoke, his voice distant. “But I truly think-”
“Um…?” Aeo whispered.
No one paid him any attention. The pain didn’t stop. It grew backwards towards his neck, and his vision began to blur. Aeo had never experienced a headache like this before—his head felt heavy and thick, like something was leaking out his ears and nose. Aeo lifted his arm and reached out for Leon’s shoulder. He could hardly find it through the haze of his vision, and must have looked grasping and desperate.
For a moment, he seemed to ignore Aeo’s pleading. His tongue barely obeyed him, the bursting pain traveled down his neck and followed his spinal cord. Aeo lost his sense of sight, and both his arms clung to Leon’s arm. The pain spiked, and it finally felt as though his head might burst! When Leon finally looked away from Shera, he seemed distant and distracted, like Shera’s still spoke powerful thoughts into his mind. Leon finally replied.
“What…? Did you…”
Aeo stared at him, unable to speak.
“Shera!” Leon shouted
Almost immediately, the tightness and pain on Aeo’s head faded, and fuzzy vision swam back into view. Leon stared at Aeo like a painting, and then back at Shera with a distant stare. The snarl had disappeared from her face, though she remained on her front paws and leaning forward at attention. As if the wolf could feel his thoughts and feelings, she gazed at Aeo directly. The thought-voice came clear and more gentle than before.
<”Some things are difficult to explain.”>
“Difficult to explain…?” Leon looked down at Aeo as if seeing him for the first time. “Shera, you… weren’t protecting him!”
Shera said nothing.
“We could have taken this outside, you foolish…!” Leon placed his hand on Aeo’s head, as if he’d suddenly developed a fever. “Are you all right, Aeo? Can you see? Oh, my boy, are you all right? Can you speak?”
Aeo’s brow raised, then lowered in confusion. Something then clicked inside his head. No, not clicked… Poured. His nose bled down his face and across his chest.
“Aeo! Goddess, hold on!”
Leon lifted Aeo’s face – it didn’t help, as Aeo sputtered and coughed. Aeo still clung to him like a spider, but from somewhere, Leon found cloth and instead pressed it against his nose.
“Can you see, Aeo?” Leon said, moisture beading on his own forehead. “Tell me, Aeo! Shera, this argument had already been had, you didn’t need to hash it out again with the boy watching! I merely wanted your help in explaining the situation here! I cannot believe you wouldn’t protect him. Are you mad?”
<”Forgive me… I lost myself.”>
“You certainly did!”
“What… what happened?” Aeo asked quietly. “What’s… wrong with me…”
“Oh thank heavens,” Leon whispered, and fell quiet for a moment, answering the question in a strange way. Aeo looked up at him, and while his nose hadn’t bled like his, Leon looked positively terrible himself, breathing heavily and sweating as if he’d hiked all the way down the mountain and back down again. He wiped the sweat from his mouth. Shera flicked her tail.
<”Goddess help me,”> Shera said finally, her thought barely an addition to the confusion in Aeo’s mind. She lifted herself off the ground and turning towards the door. <”Nothing is wrong with you, boy. You are welcome here as long as it takes for your frostbite to heal.”>
“Shera, you cannot just avoid responsibility…” Leon said. But the wolf was already heading out the door. She stepped away with a surprising grace, much more than Aeo would suspect a creature her size, then just as deftly closing the door behind her with a thud. As if in response to her prompt exit, the hazy purple mist on the far side of the room suddenly faded away with an audible pop as the lit candles on the wall blew out, and at last, the air in the cave drastically lowered in temperature with the door slightly ajar and the campfire dying away.
Leon sighed, his breath becoming quite visible in the sudden cold.
“Are you sure you’re all right, Aeo? You can see, can’t you? I know what it’s like to be… affected by Shera. Feels like your head is ready to burst open.”
Aeo placed a hand on his own forehead. He must have looked like Leon himself. White as a ghost. Perhaps Leon tried to hide it by holding Aeo up and breathing, but Aeo could feel Leon’s own hands trembling.
“I’m… I’m f-fine, sir,” Aeo said, lifting his hand to the cloth over his face. Again, he pulled his face backwards; the flow of blood had slowed to a crawl. Aeo pushed the cloth away, and Leon let it fall into his hands. His grip on Leon lessened, and he laid back down in his bed. “I… I made Shera mad.”
“No, you didn’t, believe it or not,” Leon said. He looked down at Aeo, clearing his rattled throat. “She was only angry at me. But it wasn’t the worst she could do. Trust me, you’d know it if she became truly… agitated.”
Leon lifted himself, rolling up his sleeves, regardless of the intense chill now blowing through the cavern.
“I should have helped you, Aeo. I’ll make sure Shera won’t ever be that irresponsible again… As much as I can. I had hoped she would explain to you more about the situation on the mountain, but… it brought up bad feelings, I suppose. Just rest for now… I’ll make sure Pick comes in to watch over you. At least he certainly doesn’t have that power yet.”
Leon crossed the room towards the now extinguished candles, and stood over them. Aeo’s eyes still blurred over as if he’d just woken up, but he could have sworn he saw Leon raise a hand towards the candles as if warming himself against the bare wax. He had no matches or burning stick from the campfire. Instead, Leon bit his teeth down and steadied himself against the wall with one hand as if preparing to shove the stone wall inwards. It happened slowly at first, then faster and faster: a strange circular glyph made of white light projected itself from the palm of Leon’s hand and silently floated towards the wall. Aeo blinked, not knowing at all what he saw. The glyph itself looked like the icon one might see on a flag or in some ancient book, and shimmered in the dim light. It grew larger and larger like an inflating balloon, stopping its growth only when the symbol concealed the candles from Aeo’s view. It seemed to hover there for a moment as Leon focused intensely on the light in his hand. Then with a pair of small pops, like the sound of distant clapping, the glyph vanished, leaving behind four lit candles and the familiar purple mist streaming from them like downwards-streaming smoke.
“Magic,” Aeo whispered. Did he see that correctly?
Leon pulled himself from the wall, shaking the hand that lit the candles; a strange white dust floated away from them like fine dust.
“There,” he whispered. “It should warm up in here again before I go.”
“You’re leaving, s-sir?” Aeo whispered in a timid voice just loud enough to hear. But wait, another more important question: “You can do magic?”
“That,” Leon said with a smile, stepping towards the campfire, “is a long story.”
Aeo relaxed in his bed as Leon walked over with a strange bottle in one hand and a cream-colored cloth in the other. He knelt down, and carefully doused a portion on the cloth in a delightfully-scented liquid.
“Here you are,” Leon said, clearing his throat again. “You can clean yourself up.”
Aeo looked down at his chest; he had covered it in now-drying blood. He lifted himself up slowly and rubbed the cloth against himself.
“What does the magic do?” Aeo whispered.
“Oh, that?” Leon replied. “It’s a ward. Pretty straightfoward. It keeps the cold air from coming through the door, makes it warm and dry in here. It just takes a few candles and a bit of spirit.”
“I’ll tell you about it tonight. You need to rest now. I’ll give you some medicine to help you sleep, help you recover from… Shera. But I’ve got to go see to my experiments before they go bad, you see. Don’t worry, my work doesn’t take me too far, only a few caves down the trail. And if you need anything, you can send Pick to come find me. I’ll be back later on and I’ll tell you everything. Sound good?”
Leon’s voice sounded hoarse for a moment at the end. He went quiet. For a moment, he placed his fingers on his temples.
“Are… are you all right, sir?” Aeo asked.
Leon cleared his throat and didn’t turn around.
“Oh, of course, certainly.”
Aeo squirmed beneath his fur blanket.
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. During his bloody nose experience with Shera, it was 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 freedom from worry. Most worry, anyway. Far better than the inn, at least.
Aeo struggled not to think. It didn’t work.
He thought about what he’d be doing back at the inn at that moment. Probably sweeping something. Probably being blamed for something. Probably being hit for something he didn’t do. Maybe refilling Harthoon’s mug and getting it splashed in his face.
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 she even do? Leon said she didn’t ‘protect’ him. His head still hurt from the experience. But it was a distant memory compared to the dull aching pain of his bruised eye and frozen feet.
Aeo tenderly rubbed the bruise. He could feel his heart beat within it.
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. Harthoon and Ariste would certainly want to punish him for the fire. But no one in the entire village would miss him. Wouldn’t they? Would they search for the boy that burned down the inn? 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 mean or forceful man, certainly nothing like his former masters. And although Aeo knew Shera didn’t like him at all, Pick was more than happy to be friends.
Maybe he could stay, live on the mountain forever. He decided he wouldn’t mind that. So long as that terrible headaches and nosebleeds stayed at a minimum. 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. Aeo felt panic tear through his mind. It couldn’t be her! Not by himself!
A pair of curious eyes spotted Aeo, and the furry creature growled quietly as a thought entered Aeo’s head.
“Oh. 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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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. He couldn’t stop the words from coming. “I started a fire. In the inn. I wanted it to burn everything down. I wanted all those people to stop hurting me. The fire would make it go away.”
Pick whined and drew his head closer to Aeo’s chest.
“I didn’t mean to,” Aeo said. “It was an accident. But they’d never believe me. They’d never believe I didn’t light it on purpose just to make them stop. It started really small at first, and it even burned my hand, but… It didn’t hurt me. It just kept burning. When they tried to put it out with water, it just burned brighter and brighter…”
Pick watched him silently.
“It didn’t stop them. They just beat me more. Did… this.” Aeo pointed to his face. “Threw me away and told me to get help. But I didn’t help them. I didn’t. I hope the inn burned down. I hope it left them in the cold like me. I hope they got frostbite. I hope they’re angry, because they can’t do anything about it. I’m never going back there. No one’s going to make me.”
Aeo sniffed. He raised his hand and passed it over the soft fur on Pick’s head.
“I’m sorry,” Aeo said quietly. “I probably don’t make much sense.”
Pick lifted his head a bit.
Aeo frowned. “What do you… mean?”
Aeo’s shoulders fell. That thought hadn’t occurred to him in a long time. The only two ‘large wolves’ he’d known beat him on a daily basis.
“Oh. A… mom and dad.” Aeo shrugged. “I… I don’t have any.”
“I don’t know who my dad was. I… guess I had one. Someone told me my mom died when I was really little. At least I think that’s what they told me. I was really little. When I was born, I lived far away. Then something happened, and I was brought to Olvaren to live with… Well, bad people. If I had parents, I don’t think they would have hit me.”
Pick’s head bobbed up and down. He then started panting, and his breath filled the air.
Aeo rubbed his nose with his arm.
“Yeah, I’m glad you have a mommy,” Aeo said. “She takes care of you and she’s never mean to you or makes you do chores…”
“I don’t know what you mean… Running away from… Shera? Oh, you mean she does make you do chores? I’d want to run away, too.”
“Okay, not really,” Aeo said quietly. “If… If Shera asked me to do chores for her, I’d do them, I think. If it meant I never have to go back to the village ever again, I’d do it.”
“Y-Yeah, that’s right,” Aeo said. “I don’t have to live with those people anymore. I can live with you instead, and you’ll never be mean to me. 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… sorry. I don’t want to be sad anymore.”
“Howling,” Aeo said quietly. “That’s what I’ll do. I’ll just howl instead.”
He cleared his throat.
Pick followed right along with a loud howl.
Just as Pick howled, the door creaked. Aeo looked towards the large door and Pick’s ears perked up.
The small door opened. In marched the now-familiar form of Leon, wrapped up tightly in a puffy mountain jacket with a great hood over his head. He was also carrying a curiously shaped package… or was it a curiously shaped bag? Leon placed the bag-package down, clomped his feet at the door, and removed the gloves from his hands. Strangely enough, he now wore a pair of slim-framed glasses that truly made him look like a school teacher.
“Goodness, it’s coming down out there,” he said to no one in particular. He looked up at Aeo. “Well, look at you, Aeo! Sitting up in bed and everything. How are your toes feeling?”
Pick looked up at Aeo.
“They’re itchy, sir.”
“You’re not touching them, are you?” Leon pulled off his coat.
“Good, good. Unfortunately, frostbite will do that. Fortunately, I have some tonic that might help the healing process, speed it up a bit. This mountain’s caves are filled with helpful plants and fungi… if you know to find the right ones, of course.”
Leon walked over to Aeo’s bed and knelt, placing the bag onto the floor. He unbuttoned the front flap and produced a small vial filled with a red-and-black speckled substance; he held it up and jingled it as his eyebrows raised. He then dove back into the bag and produced a roll of cotton bandages. Leon lifted the fur blanket off of Aeo’s feet, and said “Hmm.” What did “hmm” mean? Aeo peered over the blanket, and his stomach sank at the sight. He hadn’t seen them himself – it was worse than he’d imagined.
“Skin’s peeling a bit,” Leon said. “But it looks more purple and red than black now. Certainly an improvement.”
He carefully cupped his hands over both sets of toes.
“Do you feel that?”
“Yeah,” Aeo said.
“Very good, you’ve got feeling. Well, of course you do if you’re itching. Now let’s see if we can’t help that…”
Suddenly, Pick’s ears perked up. Nearly at the same time, the door creaked open, and a tiny lonesome spherical figure entered. Then something much larger followed in after her. The entire large door opened, and in carefully entered Shera, her dark eyes carefully examining the inside of the cave.
“Oh, hello everyone!” cried Hala. The fur coat was shed and placed beside the fire, and out of it stepped the foot-tall frog. She was no longer clothed in a bright dress, but a slim leather suit covered in various pockets and satchels. “My my, it gets chilly at this time!”
“Good evening, Hala,” Leon said. “Come on in, Shera, there’s room for all of us.”
A much gentler thought arose in Aeo’s head.
Aeo’s stomach squirmed at the sight of her. He forced a small, silent wave as Pick howled. At least he was happy to see her.
“Aeo, it’s wonderful you’re up out of bed!” Hala said excitedly as Shera shook off the snow, closed the door, and sat down as carefully as her large form could on top of Leon’s bedding and against the wall. “Well, halfway out, of course. How is the frostbite coming along?” Hala stepped towards Leon and stood beside him, placing a webbed hand on his side. She gasped. “Oh, heaven above, it’s worse than I feared.”
<”I agree,”> said Shera, lowering her head to look.
“Believe me,” Leon said. “This is better than before.”
“Well!” she said excitedly. “All the more reason I’m here! Please, Leon, before you tend to those little piggies, I have a quick assignment for you!”
From one of her pockets Hala produced a thin string made of… silk? Whatever it was, it shined and reflected the firelight nicely. She also produced a small bit of… something black?
“Now, hold that to the top of his foot,” she said, and Leon obeyed, placing the string on the top of Aeo’s big toe. Hala dove down and placed the other end on his heel, making a black mark on the string with what was definitely charcoal. “Now the other one!” They repeated the process. They then measured the width of each foot.
“What’s she doing?” Aeo asked curiously.
“I believe she’s planning on making you a pair of boots,” Leon replied as Hala hopped back up.
“Oh, don’t spoil the surprise, dear!” Hala said, playfully slapping Leon’s arm. “Well. That’s right, I’m going to make sure your feetsies never have to suffer out there again. Perhaps if I have more time, I’ll knit you a fur coat to go along with it!”
“Now Aeo,” Leon said. “I know how big these projects are for Hala…” He lowered his hand as if measuring Hala, then whispered: “No pun intended.”
“Oh, humph!” Hala said.
“…but don’t you think you should say thank you?”
“Yes, s-sir,” he said shyly. “Th-thank you, ma’am,”
“Oh, don’t thank me just yet, my dear!” Hala placed the string and the black marker back into the pouches on her belt. “You can thank me if I do the job correctly! Now, is it feeling a bit cold in here for everyone? No? Just me? Well, I’ll just tend to the fire anyway, make sure it stays warm for the rest of the night…” She turned towards the campfire.
“Don’t tire yourself out, Hala,” Leon said. “I can take care of-”
“Oh nonsense, you giant fool! Nonsense! It’s what I’m here for. Well, the secondthing I’m here for. Ha ha!”
Shera, remaining quiet, instinctively motioned herself closer against the cave wall, knowing what was coming. Just as Hala had done the morning before, Hala leaned over the fire and proceeded to take the biggest breath Aeo had ever seen. She held it in for a moment, then lurched forward and belched a bright red flame directly from her mouth into the smoldering campfire. Along with the fire dripped a strange liquid from her wide lips that burst and crackled when it hit the ground, bringing the fire to a bright and tempered glow. When finished, she turned to see all eyes pointed at her.
“Well, it’s very impolite to stare!” she cried.
“In case you were wondering,” Leon said, leaning towards Aeo and the bandages. “Hala is what I like to call a fire frog. Not very technical, but you get the idea. It’s how they’ve adapted to the cold of the region, and it’s how they hunt for fish. Cook them right before they eat them. They live in the hot springs mostly, but are a great help keeping the torches and fires going. They last for hours and hours at a time, too.”
<”And we’re indebted to them,”> Shera added. <”Without them, we would no doubt freeze.”>
“Oh, it’s no trouble! No trouble at all!” Hala said, reaching for the firewood pile. “Well, it isn’t for me. Can’t say the same my mate. Or his family. Or Heem, for that matter! Laziest toads you’ll ever see!”
Leon took his time, dabbing the red substance onto the bandages and around the worst colors of Aeo’s feet. It tickled a couple of times. A good sign, of course. It meant he wasn’t about to lose them. As Leon worked, Aeo patted Pick on the head and looked at the purple mist on the opposite wall. It shone more apparently in the low light of the campfire, and seemed to flicker with the dancing of the lit candles on the wall.
“Leon, sir,” Aeo said. “Could… Could you tell me about magic now?”
“Certainly,” he said with a smile.
Pick tilted his head.
“Really?” Aeo pet Pick’s head. “Leon can make fire like that?”
“If I wanted to tire myself out as fast as possible, yes,” he said. He paused, scratching his head. “Well, I suppose I should start at the beginning, shouldn’t I?”
Leon paused, scratching his arm.
“Magic is, well… understanding the basic principles and mechanics of the world around us. If you have a strong enough will, you can bend those rules to influence a number of things. Like fire, for instance, or keeping this cave the right temperature. Like you see with the wards. There are a lot of… mundane magics that can-”
“What’s… mun-dane?” Aeo asked.
“Well, everyday things, boring things. Like cooking meals, keeping torches lit, cooling down a hot room, that sort of thing. A lot of magic is mundane, especially where I come from. Not a lot of battles to be fought with fire and lightning.”
Aeo’s eyebrows raised.
“Yes, lightning. Lightning is power, a lot like fire. And with practice, power can be used. Have you ever seen an automatic light? It lights up with the flick of a switch and, unlike a lantern, you never have to relight it.”
Aeo shook his head.
“I’m sure the folks in Olvaren would marvel at the thought,” Leon said.
“As would we!” Hala said from the other side of the room. “I can’t begin to imagine how that would work.”
“I’ve heard the plans are quite complicated,” Leon said. “One of the many miracles produced by the Chaska Academy at Lorden.” Aeo had never heard of such a place, so he stayed quiet. “I’ve heard they’re even working on a carriage that can drive itself without the need of horses. Perhaps they’ve perfected its design by now. Doesn’t that sound incredible? I doubt the everyman will ever use such a thing without access to a readily available power source. Can’t have veri do all the work themselves when horses are more durable anyway. After all, shooting lightning from your hands can can wear yourself down to nothing.”
Leon lifted his hands and sat down on the floor.
“But anyway, I digress. Let’s see… Someone that practices magic is called a veras, and a group of veras is veri. Many people call us wizards, but that term is old and sometimes offensive. Many people make that mistake, you see. When a veras uses magic, then that veras uses ‘spirit’. Some veri have more spirit than others, and when you practice magic, your amount of spirit can increase, like… training your muscles. When you exhaust your ‘spirit’, just like straining yourself in a long run, it can take a few days of rest to recover. If you really overdo it, I’ve heard of veri falling catatonic for two or three weeks, even longer.”
“Like falling asleep but being awake at the same time… Not able to move at all.”
“That sounds scary,” Aeo said, wrinkling his nose.
Leon wrapped the bandages around Aeo’s feet as well as over his toes. Now finished, Leon replaced the blanket, as well as the rubber bottles on top and beneath each foot.
“It can be. That’s why magic should be a very careful practice, take your time, study as much as you can. It’s exercise. It takes time to become big and strong, right?”
“Now, not every veras can learn the same kinds of things as others. Some are talented at wards, like I am, making changes to the environment. Some have skills with elemental magic, like creating fire, lightning, ice, moving water, or sculpting stone. Some are good at healing… Like I wish I were. If so, your frostbite would already be healed, I imagine.”
“Hmm,” Aeo said.
“Don’t sell yourself short, now Leon,” said Hala. “Without these wards of yours, why, poor Shera and Pick would up and freeze in here in no time at all.”
Both Shera and Pick growled in the affirmative.
“That’s true. I should be grateful for my own talents. In fact, I am glad I don’t have the skills to fight. I’ve never been one for violence. But other veri practice combat, especially those that guard important people, or big cities, or long roads. Even tiny villages like Olvaren call for protection, and veri can be paid very well. Sellswords have to have a lot of strength when it comes to magic; it’s difficult to keep up your spirit, especially in the midst of battle. Without practice, you could use all your spirit at once and become useless.”
“I’d love to fight with magic,” Aeo said. “Then I could…” He paused, choosing his words. “…I could go wherever I want.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Leon replied. ”Most animals can be scared away with a bolt of lightning, and bandits think twice before robbing a man who can light them on fire.”
Leon scratched his face.
“You know… I want to try something. It might be dangerous, but I think you might…”
Leon stood up slowly and approached the campfire as if reluctant to do so. If Aeo had seen his face, he would have seen a look of delicate focus. Aeo peeked over Pick’s head. It looked as if Leon were playing with the flames.
“There we go…” Leon whispered.
“Oh, don’t you go and catch the poor boy on fire! I won’t forgive you! What makes you think he can do what you do?” Hala shouted.
“Intuition,” he said quietly.
Leon stepped back over to Aeo, his face illuminated by a strange light. No, not strange. Familiar. The same as the campfire. Leon sat down, and floating between his hands was a gentle flame. Pick suddenly lifted his head and backed away with a slight whimper to his own fur bed. Shera looked up in interest.
“Whoa…” Aeo whispered.
“Like I said,” Leon said, his voice quiet and tense. “Some veri… have a knack for different things. My specialty… is not fire. So this takes… more than a bit of concentration.”
Leon put his hands forward.
“Now. I won’t… dump the fire in your lap. I want you to… hold your hands up. Like you’re warming them. Hold them up.”
Aeo hesitated. He lifted his hands slowly and put them away from him. He could feel the fire’s warmth immediately, and hoped Leon didn’t place it any further.
“There you go, there you go… Put his hands apart a little bit so you can see… Good.”
Leon sighed, and the fire danced in his hands as he adjusted them. His face looked strained.
“All right. I want you to… imagine you’re warming up. Remember how it felt to feel the warm water bottles? Imagine that… Feel the fire warming up your hands.”
Aeo imagined it easily.
“As you’re focusing on that,” Leon continued. “Imagine that warmth in between your hands. Take all the warmth in your body and imagine it going up your arms and between your hands… Can you do that?”
“I think so…” Aeo said quietly.
“Tell me when you’re ready,” Leon replied.
Ready? For what exactly? Aeo sat there, arms raised and hands poised between a magical fire, and did his best to follow Leon’s orders. Take all the warmth in his body… Aeo felt the water bottles in his feet and imagined it moving up his legs. Simple enough. He thought it move up into his spine and into his stomach and chest. Then into his shoulders and muscles, down his arms, into his hands, and between his fingertips… It was all imagination, though. Wasn’t it?
A moment later, he cleared his throat.
“Now lift your hands up. Think of the warmth between your hands, don’t stop thinking about it. Lift your hands.”
Aeo tried to lift his hands. They wouldn’t move. He tried harder, straining even his back muscles to propel himself upwards. Nothing worked. Something was wrong.
Then Aeo looked: Leon’s hands were gone.
In between his own two hands sat the small flame, dancing back and forth.
With every inhale, the flame would grow smaller and nearly disappear. Every exhale, it would grow larger and more powerful. He’d never seen anything as strange as this. So mesmerizing. His head suddenly felt very dizzy. But he couldn’t fall backwards; the fire held him there. He simply watched it dance like a spinning flower, like a tree blowing in the wind. It seemed to glow like the sun itself. He simultaneously did and didn’t want to close his eyes to this glowing orb in his hands.
“Amazing,” Leon whispered. “Looks like you’ve got the talent.”
Then, in an instant, the fire allowed Aeo to move, like the magic released him from its grip. His arms trembled from being raised, so slid backwards, bringing the fire closer to his chest. It didn’t waver from the space between his cupped fingers, and despite everything, the flame felt comforting, familiar.
Aeo’s thoughts burned as bright as the flame at the thought. Comforting. As comforting as burning down the Gray Pale Inn. As comforting as receiving a beating. He remembered the dreams of the sun as it fell down upon him, not burning and unbearable, but gentle and soft, the way moonlight felt on his face. He shouldn’t be able to look upon that bright sun from his dreams with his naked eyes, yet he could, and he saw all the colors of rainbow inside that sun. They burned and danced all together like firelight. He could see the flames of the inn growing ever brighter, never wanting them to go out…
This memory made the flame burn all the brighter. So bright, in fact, that the once small flicker became a larger ball of fire, dancing all the more wildly. He widened his hands as if to drop it, but the flames flared larger.
Aeo’s jaw fell to the side.
“Uh-oh, wait, wait, wait…” Leon said, quickly leaning over. He took Aeo’s hands and slowly brought them together with his own. “Breathe normally, just breathe… There we go, there it goes.”
Aeo’s hands slowly came together, and as they touched, the fire went out.
<”Interesting,”> said Shera.
“It most certainly is,” Hala said with a gasp.
“Aeo,” Leon said, sitting back down. “Are you sure you haven’t done this before?”
Aeo lowered his now shaking hands and stared at the ground. He said nothing.
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.”