There hadn’t been rain in months, but of all nights for the sky to release a sea’s worth it had to be this one.
Errol pulled his cloak about him tightly, trying desperately to keep warmth from seeping through his armor. He laughed at the absurdity of the idea. If the metal couldn’t keep the heat from escaping, what good would the thin, falling apart fabric do? He longed for the fire filled rooms of the inn he’d been spending the past two weeks in.
Some would say God was having a laugh at his expense, but the truth was he saw the signs of the rain long before it hit. What chased him from the inn hadn’t been a desire to leave, but a need to. The people could only stand having him there for two weeks and that’s longer than normal. They were a forgiving town, but only until his usefulness ran out.
He smiled at the thought. His usefulness ran out? They’ll be praying to the old gods for his return long before they realize it’s too late to call him back. They’ll have to wait a whole year before he ever plans to return this way.
It’s why he did this work. There was always plenty of it. He may clean out a town, but soon they’ll be asking for him again. It’s kept his purse and his belly full for this long and he had no plans to stop anytime soon.
“You’re probably enjoying this, aren’t you, Squall?” Errol said, patting the neck of his horse.
A loud snort and rough shake of a head was his response. Laughing, Errol wiped the water from his eyes. His hood was already soaked through. When he reached the next town he’d find a tanner to make him a new leather hood. Luckily he had the perfect skin for it thanks to his work in the town long behind him. He’d also need to buy a wool cloak. The weather was only going to get worse the further North he rode.
The next town, he’d only stay long enough for the tanner to work. He couldn’t wait too long or else the coming snows would make the cross through Feilor Mountains impossible, even with a horse like Squall.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Cursing, Errol realized the storm was becoming worse the further on the road he went. But as he watched the clouds they moved lazily overhead. More than likely the storm would continue through the next day. He’d have to find somewhere to camp soon. A cave would be preferable, but he couldn’t remember if there was one nearby.
“How’s that for irony, Squall? We’ve ridden this way for years and I can’t remember what’s even between the last town and the next. Should we stop or pray for a miracle?”
Squall picked up her pace, answering the latter. Never one to argue with a horse, Errol urged her on. The rain fell harder as the timing between each thunder grew less and less. Lightning flashed in the distance, lighting the mountains far away.
An hour passed as the rain made it difficult to see, even with Errol’s well-tuned night vision. The lightning preceded each thundering clap and only once did Squall jump at the noise, having been bred to fear very little. To her credit, Errol felt fear shoot through him at the same clap, but once the following rumble fades, he realized why.
There had been a scream mixed into the booming sound. He slowed Squall and listened, his eyes searching the few trees to the side of the road. After a quick succession of lightning flashes, a long roll of thunder rose in volume before a second boom hit. As the boom faded, Errol heard it.
A woman’s scream came from the right.
Clicking his tongue, Errol kicked Squall’s sides and she immediately leaped into a gallop, leaving the muddy road behind. The few trees are revealed at each flash of light, but Errol had no trouble leading Squall around them. The scream became clearer now that he’s listening for it. It wasn’t one of terror, a sound he’s used to hearing, but one of immense pain.
Easily finding footing even in the tall grass, Squall got them closer and closer to the screams and at the next flash of lightning Errol saw a cave appear amongst the hills. He urged Squall faster and the great beast eagerly obliged, seeing a dry place from the rain.
Reaching the cave as a bolt of lightning hits nearby, Errol only slowed Squall to keep her from losing her footing. He dismounted as soon as they entered the cave and removed his hood, revealing his shaved head. A small fire projected two shadows on the cave wall. A man and a woman huddle together.
The woman was on her back, her legs apart and face red and sweating. She grasped the man’s hand tightly, turning her knuckles white. The man held her in his other arm, whispering encouraging words to her. They hadn’t heard Errol or Squall’s approach due to the rain and thunder.
“You’re going to be fine, Shayla. The rain’ll be stopping soon and we’ll get to Darenworth. Just hold on a little longer,” the man cooed into the woman’s ear.
In response the woman’s breathing grew ragged before a scream grew from the very depths of her. She leaned forward over her large belly, her free hand clenching at her dress.
“You’re wrong about the rain,” Errol said, making the man jump in fear. “The rain won’t be stopping for maybe another day.”
“Who are you? What do you want? We don’t have anything valuable, please, just leave us be,” the man pleaded.
Squall shook, water flying everywhere, some droplets hitting the man and woman. The woman’s eyes locked onto Errol and widened with fear, but another wave of pain caused her to moan loudly.
Walking closer, Errol’s eyes quickly surveyed the woman before locking onto the man. “We need water, now.”
“Water. Do you have any supplies?”
Startled, the man shook his head. “When Shayla started having the pains I grabbed only an extra pair of clothes and money for the doctor.”
“There’s a small pot in the saddlebags. Grab it, two towels, the hunting knife, and fill it with water.” Errol held up a hand at the man, whose mouth was open to speak. “Rain water will be fine. When it’s halfway full bring it back and boil the water. Hurry, the baby is coming whether you get it or not.”
The man stumbled to his feet and headed towards Squall who’d found a small patch of dried grass to munch on.
Errol moved in front of the woman, Shayla. He locked eyes with her and held his hands so she could see. “This is going to be an odd thing to hear from a stranger, but I need to take a peek below to see what’s happening with the baby. You can trust me or we can do this the dangerous way.”
Breathing quickly, Shayla thought only for a moment before nodding her head. Even with the next wave of pain already seizing her she managed to squeak out, “Have you done this before?”
A wide smile filled Errol’s face as he gripped her skirt in his hands. “Never in my life.”
* * *
What little light could break through the thick storm clouds did little to brighten the world. But it mattered little to Errol. His eyes could see well in the day or in the dark. The darkness of storm clouds changed nothing.
He stood at the mouth of the cave, washing the blood from his hands, and towels. Even if he managed to clean all the blood and other fluids from them he was going to buy new ones as well as a new cloak.
Once his hands were clean he grabbed the pot, no longer filled with just boiling water and ventured out a good distance from the cave. He dug a small hole in the ground and dumped the bloody mess in. The rain hitting the leaves of the trees filled the air and the sound of snapping twigs grew more frequent.
Errol paused in his work a moment, listening intently. He took a deep breath in, releasing it slowly. The smell of blood was strong even with the rain beating down on him.
Covering the after birth as fully as he could with the muddy ground, he cleaned the pot before returning to the cave.
Sobs and gasps echoed against the walls, as well as a third sound. A tiny sound, so small it couldn’t even make an echo. Finishing, Errol placed the soaking towels on two rocks to dry and the pot upside down on the floor. Turning to Squall, he realized she’d made her way towards the couple. The horse lowered its head tentatively, sniffing curiously. Errol walked up and sat beside the couple, gently nudging the horse’s head from the tiny bundle in Shayla’s arms.
Shayla was still a little pale and sweat remained on her forehead. Dark bags under her eyes showed her exhaustion, but otherwise she was filled with new energy. The man, Derrick, Errol had learned as they worked, held his wife with one arm and waggled a finger at the bundle of cloak.
The baby girl cooed softly, her hands and fingers reaching out into the new world before her. Her tiny tongue pushed out from between her lips, a new sensation for her. Her eyes remained closed, not yet ready to take in the sights. One small hand gripped the fabric of Errol’s cloak tightly as she drifted off into a short sleep.
“Thank you,” Shayla whispered, forcing Errol to look away from the tiny newborn.
Crossing his arms over his chest, straining the leather of his armor, Errol shrugged. “You’re only lucky I was riding close enough to hear the screams. Now that everything’s settled down, I have a few questions.”
Derrick’s eyes widened with a mixture of his exhaustion and slight annoyance. “What kind of questions?”
“Nothing too personal. Just wondering how you got this far in the middle of a storm? I doubt you walked the whole way, considering.” He motioned to the baby.
“We had a horse, but when the thunder and lightning became worse he took off. I was barely able to get Shayla off before she was thrown. Shayla knew about this cave from when she was a girl,” Derrick said.
“It was better than trying to walk the rest of the way. We thought the storm might pass quickly,” Shayla added, a rosy tint filling her cheeks. “Praying more, actually.”
“When it didn’t clear up I thought about making a run for the town, but I couldn’t leave her alone.”
“Why not stay home? How far are you from the town?” Errol asked, already knowing the real answer.
“The doctor in our town died during a recent…attack. The next closest doctor is in—”
“Darenworth,” Errol finished for him. “I came from Darenworth. You’re still half a day’s ride even in perfect weather. You should’ve stayed home.”
Shayla glanced at Derrick and he took one of her hands in his. “We were afraid to do it alone. This is our first and the last woman in our town who did it without a doctor died along with the child.”
“Though, you said you’d never done this before. How did you even know how?” Shayla asked.
“Good to know every possibility in my line of work. That includes the human as well as nonhuman.”
A silence grew between the three, interrupted only by the baby’s tiny coos. Realization filled Shayla and Derrick and the fear returned to their eyes.
“You’re a Majister,” Derrick choked out. His arm around Shayla squeezed her and his new daughter closer to him.
Errol laughed, a sudden sound that caused the young couple to flinch. “I haven’t been called that in these lands for years. You aren’t originally from here, are you?”
“I was born in Stoven further North.”
Stoven? Errol thought, but aloud he said, “You’re a long way from home. Why did you settle here?”
“I found a reason to stay.” To emphasize, he moved closer to Shayla.
Eyeing the new mother, Errol leaned his head to the side. “So you’re the local.”
Shayla nodded. “Lived in Darenworth most of my life, but left when the church was built.”
“Moved or forced out?”
“Moved before they could force my family out.” The tiny bundle moved with sudden energy and the soft coos grew into agitated cries. Shayla did her best to try and calm the baby, but she only cried louder.
Errol leaned forward to get a better look at the babe. “She’s hungry.”
“How can you tell?” Derrick asked.
“Wouldn’t you be hungry after such a struggle?” Standing, Errol takes a firm hold of Squall’s reins. “I’ll give you two a moment to rest.”
“You’re leaving?” Shayla asked.
Shaking his head, Errol lead Squall further into the cave. “With the stench of fresh blood filling this cave and the storm still raging, it wouldn’t be very courteous for me to abandon two unarmed people and their newborn, child.”
“What do you mean?” Derrick asked.
Errol found a thick root boring through the wall. He loosened the earth around it enough to tie Squall’s reins to it. Then he lifted the heavy leather cover to reveal a selection of weapons.
“I heard them outside when I buried the after birth. They’ll trace the scent back here soon.”
He grabbed a long blade, a broadsword with runes carved into the metal. Strapping the blade to his back, he maneuvered it to a comfortable position that wouldn’t interfere with his arm or shoulder movements. He pulled on a pair of thick leather gloves and strapped several jars of strangely colored liquid to his belt.
“What’s coming?” Shayla asked, holding her baby close to her breast. The child’s cries grew more agitated, but she soon quieted.
Finishing his preparations, Errol walked across the cave towards the entrance. He stopped only when he saw the baby girl’s eyes watching him curiously. They were bright eyes filled with wonder at the first sight of a new world and he felt for a moment the baby knew his very soul.
The wonder soon passed as hunger pains reminded her of her true desire. Her face twisted and scrunched as a wail rose from her ready to use new lungs. The sound echoed through the cave and out into the storm and to the couple’s fear and Errol’s expectation howls answered.
“Wolves? Out in a storm?” The fear in Shayla’s voice was tinged with rage and Errol could hear the willingness to fight in her. But there’d be no need. Not this day.
“A small pack, but a starving one. More dangerous than a large well-fed group. I would suggest moving further into the cave. If something happens, Squall won’t mind taking you far from here.” Errol drew his broadsword, easily holding the heavy blade with one hand. In his other, he fingered the jars on his belt, waiting to decide which to use.
The baby’s cries grew louder, enticing the howls and growing sound of growls. Errol’s eyes searched the cave opening for any sign of movement, but the wind of the storm made it difficult to see what’s beast and what’s a trick of the eye.
“Feed her. Once she latches, she’ll be silent and, if we’re lucky, won’t realize what’s happening,” Errol hissed at the two. “And for gods sake, get away from the opening.”
Derrick quickly climbed to his feet and helped Shayla to hers. As they moved towards Squall, Shayla slipped out of the top of her dress to reveal a breast. She held the wailing babe up, finally silencing the cries.
Dark shadows danced along the border of the tree line outside the cave, but Errol was able to count three wolves. He lowered his center of gravity and gripped his sword eagerly. He opened a jar of red liquid and held it in front of him, waiting.
“What’s her name?” Errol asked as one of the shadows to the far left crept closer. As only the sounds of the storm and the approaching pack filled his ears, he wondered if the couple even heard him. But soon a tiny reply rose from the darkness behind him.
A smile crept across Errol’s lips. The old tongue for rain. A fitting name.
The shadow creeping ever closer suddenly leaped at Errol. Expecting this, he threw the red liquid in an arc before him. As soon as the liquid hit the earth flames erupted. They created a wall between Errol and the shadows, but he wasn’t planning on hiding behind them. The flames did what he expected them to do.
The wolf that attacked immediately leaped back while the others hesitated. In that moment, Errol jumped through the flames, his armor protected him from burns and swung his large blade at the closest wolf. The force behind his swing was strong enough to cut the animal’s head from its body, throwing the head towards its fellow pack mates. The wolf’s body stood a second longer then collapsed to the ground, blood pooling at its neck.
The other two beasts bared their fangs, their hunger greater than their fear. They knew weaker prey was just beyond this strange man. They only needed to get past him and there were two of them and only one of him. The two beasts split, one going to the left the other to the right.
Errol watched both beasts already planning his counterattack. The animals were weak from hunger. There were only a few methods of attack they’d attempt and desperation lead to mistakes.
The wolves snapped their jaws at Errol, waiting for an opportunity, but Errol only smiled. This would be over quickly. A snap of thunder shook the earth and lightning lit up the forest. Errol braced for the attack he knew would come.
The wolf to his left leaped at him, jaws open wide, while the wolf to his right ran for the cave opening behind him.
Neither reached their goals. Errol surprised both beasts by going after the one to the right, swinging his broadsword upwards to bury the blade into the wolf’s torso. He continued the swing, throwing the dying animal at its pack mate. The wolf to his left, startled at missing its prey doesn’t realize until its mate slams into it what’s happening. Errol grabbed another jar of red liquid and threw the entire thing at the wolves. It broke against the dead wolf spilling its contents on both animals. Fire engulfed both bodies and the cries of the dying beasts filled the night.
Cleaning his blade of the small amount of gore, Errol returned to the cave. He sighs as water puddled at his feet. He hoped no more creatures attempted to find food or shelter. He didn’t like the idea of fighting in the rain again.
He headed further into the cave, noticing the fire had gone out while he fought. The little daylight barely reached into the cave, but he saw no need to make a new one. He reached the small family and saw all three asleep, exhaustion beating out the danger of being torn to shreds. Or perhaps they felt safe enough with Errol.
Squall tugged angrily at her still tied reins and Errol crossed to her. He gently ran his hands over her, calming the horse enough for him to untie the reins. She shook her head before nudging her snout against his hand in appreciation. She sauntered towards a small pool of water and drank as Errol sat opposite the couple. He laid his sword at his side and leaned against the wall of the cave.
His eyes, easily able to see in the dark, scanned the couple for any signs of injuries or possible illness. Running in the rain while pregnant wasn’t the smartest decision, but with sleep finally being allowed the two looked well.
Movement in Shayla’s arms drew Errol’s eyes to tiny Malhia. She was still awake and her eyes seemed able to find him in the dark. As they stared at one another, Errol felt the same unnerving feeling he had the first time. Those tiny, new eyes saw into his very being and he wondered whether the girl would be afraid.
To his surprise, the child smiled and a soft laugh, her first laugh, echoed across the cave to his ears. Errol felt his heart pound in his chest. Such a pure sound, he felt almost ashamed he’d been the cause.
The baby girl, Malhia, slowly closed her eyes and burrowed against her mother’s chest, falling asleep.
Glancing towards the opening of the cave, Errol thought carefully. Perhaps a year was too long a period between work hunting. If he started sooner he could go farther south into lands few of his kind dared travel.
Or he could find time to stay in certain towns longer.