Snow still sat on the grounds commonly protected with shade from the few trees and bushes that could survive the high altitude, but the birds sang loudly of spring’s return. Luckily, it arrived early this year.
Errol finished prepping Squall for the journey, much to her annoyance. She’d be leaving the warm paddocks for the first time in months and preferred to remain, eating to her fill. Taking one last stock of his weaponry and other supplies, Errol lead Squall out into the warming sun.
“Heading out early, Errol?” a voice called from ahead.
Errol shielded his eyes from the sun and spotted a second horse prepared for a trip. The man holding his reins brushed the horse’s black mane caringly.
“I am. And I’m guessing from what I can see so are you, Undrell,” Errol said, climbing into Squall’s saddle. He nudged her forward and she reluctantly walked forward at a slow pace.
Climbing onto his own horse, Undrell shrugged his shoulders. “You seem to get better luck the earlier you leave, I figured I’d give a shot, too. Mind the company?”
Knowing his answer was irrelevant, Errol only continued past him. Undrell smiled and followed. The path down the mountain would take two days. It could be done in one, but with the snow still present in patches it was safer to take the journey slow. One false move and both rider and horse would spend a good distance rolling downwards with nothing to stop them but rocks and thick tree trunks.
The two horses easily navigated the twists and turns of the path, having walked them many times. White snow hares rushed across the path when the two approached. Birds sang louder as the sun rose higher in the sky, melting any snow unfortunate enough to be in its line of sight.
The two men passed the first hour in silence. Though it was rare for two Majisters to travel together, when it happened not much talking ever truly occurred. The company was only welcomed because it usually meant larger jobs and higher pay. Today, however, Errol knew there was no coincidence to why Undrell had a horse ready so early.
“I don’t understand why you’re following me, Undrell,” Errol finally said, annoyed. He glared at the smaller man riding next to him. “And don’t say you aren’t planning, too. There’s no other reason for you to leave at the exact same hour as me otherwise.”
Undrell smiled, eyeing Errol with a look that generally caused more trouble than it was worth. “We’ve all heard the rumors. None would dare approach you with their questions and many wouldn’t believe any answer you’d give even if you gave one. Therefore, I decided to end the speculation it was time for someone to discover your secret.”
“I have no secrets. If I did,” he reached for the hilt of his dagger at his side, “I wouldn’t let those who knew live.”
Holding up a gloved hand with one finger missing, Undrell rolled his eyes. “Threats mean nothing to me. Let me see what you’ve been hiding so I might satiate our brethren before one of the more dangerous ones decide to find out in a more, shall we say, typical brutish way.”
Errol returned his hand to Squall’s reins. His eyes narrowed as he studied Undrell’s snake-like smile. He didn’t dislike the man. In fact, compared the rest of their brethren, Undrell was the closest to a true brother. He could trust him more than any of the others. And he had a point about the more dangerous ones. They enjoyed the more forceful ways of finding out secrets.
“Fine. But I would appreciate it if you watched your tongue. If you don’t I’ll cut it out.”
“I can make no promises. It’s a long trek to Augon Hall.”
“What business do you have in Augon Hall?”
Shrugging, Undrell waved his hand. “Something to do with a dragon or a potential uprising, I can’t remember. The summons was smudged with blood by the time it reached us and when Treya could actually make anything out, the meaning was lost. Basically she told me to just go and figure it out once I got there.”
“Isn’t that Berton’s territory? Why isn’t he travelling there?”
“He’s been requested to oversee the graduation of the new trainees.”
Errol laughed. “He must be thrilled. Has it really been twenty years already?”
“Ah, you remember,” Undrell leaned close as though Breton were nearby to overhear, “The older ones were a little iffy about allowing him to oversee it, but Treya of all people encouraged them to agree. She even got Berton to start preparations early.”
“Was that because she truly wanted him to be overseer or because you wanted the Augon Hall job?”
“I would never cheat a fellow of his work.” Undrell’s eyes avoided Errol’s and he bit the corner of his lip. “But there’s no other work down south along your trail. Truthfully, Treya wanted to speak up for Berton, but naturally I had to give her a little extra push.”
“So not out of the goodness of your heart, but out of the need to satiate the curiosity driving you mad about my business.” Sighing, Errol glanced briefly back up the mountain. “Three months to ask me and you all chicken out because of some strange thought I wouldn’t be forthright with you? Is that what you all truly think of me?”
The smile faded from Undrell’s face and his eyes narrowed. “I can never tell when you’re being sarcastic or not. It doesn’t suit you.”
“Shut up. If you want to follow me, it’s fine. You’ll soon learn it was for nothing.”
“We shall see.”
They rode the rest of the day in silence, quickly reaching a campsite used many times in the past. Cooking a small meal of rabbit on the fire, Errol stared across the flames at Undrell.
“If you’re heading to Augon Hall, who will be keeping an eye on the Teivar Isles? Surely you haven’t cleaned them out permanently?”
Leaning against the rock wall, Undrell watched the flames dance. “Mer Gair will be handling them.”
Surprise filled Errol’s face. It was rare for the Sleiyer to venture out into the world for anything other than war related issues.
“You all want to learn my secret that badly?” Errol wondered aloud.
Raising his eyes to Errol, Undrell’s smile seemed even more serpentine with the shadows deforming his face. “Don’t read too much into it. Apparently a water god has appeared and they specifically asked for him. He’ll be taking Colom along.”
“Leaving you free to spy on me,” Errol said. “This will be Colom’s first large job, won’t it?”
Undrell nodded and poked at the cooking rabbit with a metal prong. “It may end up being nothing. I may have planted the seed in the minds of the people a year ago. They wouldn’t leave me be about the sudden increase in storms off their eastern shores. They’ve been losing a lot of trade ships lately and I may have mentioned that used to be the ancient signs of a water god on a rampage.”
“Mer Gair will beat you if he finds that out.”
“He can try, but once he learns what’s really causing the storms, he’ll thank me for the high pay for such an easy job. We need the gold to prepare the next class of trainees for their first ventures.”
Errol grabbed a cooked rabbit from the fire and ate it slowly, savoring the meat. He wanted to question Undrell further, but he could tell from the man’s posture he was finished talking. They ate quietly, until Errol noticed Undrell staring at him with a serious expression.
“Have you spoken to Mer Gair about accepting the Trial?” Undrell asked.
Rage filled Errol and he threw his finished rabbit carcass at him. “We only speak of such things within the walls of Culina. Mer Gair would slice another finger off if he knew you asked me such a thing.”
“There are more whispers among the brethren outside of the walls than within. All pertain to you and all pertain to you becoming a Sleiyer. We know it wouldn’t be for another few decades, but fears of another taking it before you are growing.”
“I shall not break our laws by justifying your questions with a response. It is between me and Mer Gair.”
Undrell’s eyes lit up. “So you have spoken to him about it.”
“I didn’t say that and you will stop asking.”
Reluctantly raising a hand in surrender, Undrell finished his meal. Errol prepared for sleep. He placed a sword by his hand and watched the flames until his eyes fell heavy with sleep.
* * *
The house was small, only two rooms, but for the three who lived inside, it was perfect. A small garden to the left of the house was full of vegetables and herbs. The smell of cooking meat filled the air and movement could be seen through the open windows.
Undrell stared at the house, confused. “This is your secret? A tiny house between Fintler and Darenworth?”
Climbing off Squall, Errol laughed. “Were you expecting something far larger?”
“I was expecting a brothel.” He climbed off his horse, Timber, and stared at the small garden. “Everyone thought for sure you’d bed a prostitute and given her more than a fun night.”
Before Errol could dispute the disturbing claim, the door opened and a small girl ran towards him.
“Arrow!” She leaped at him, barely giving Errol time to open his arms for the hug.
He lifted the giggling child high into the air. “Little Mal! You’re growing too fast for this man’s heart!” As he smiled, Errol could almost clearly see the unexpected shock on Undrell’s face. When he turned to him, he was greeted to a gaping jaw and bulging eyes.
Recovering his usual calm demeanor, Undrell cleared his throat. “Perhaps I spoke too soon.”
“She’s not my blood, Undrell,” Errol growled.
Malhia noticed the second man suddenly and her bright smile vanished. She wrapped her arms around Errol’s neck, clinging tightly to him.
“Malhia! What have I told you about running outside alone?” Shayla called from the doorway. When she saw Errol a smile broke on her face, but faltered when she spotted Undrell. “Errol, you’re back early this year. Who is this?”
Lowering a reluctant Malhia to the ground, Errol slapped Undrell’s shoulder hard, sending a warning through the man. “This is one of my comrades, Undrell of the Teivar Isles. He’s business further south and chose to accompany me.”
Undrell bowed his head. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Shayla, and that is my daughter, Malhia. Derrick is asleep inside. He was out all night with the watchers,” Shayla said, easily returning her attention to Errol.
Malhia clung to Errol’s leg as she glanced up at Undrell. Easily walking with the child in tow, Errol raised a curious brow. “Watchers? Why are there watchers? Are the wolf packs becoming more aggressive?”
“You’ll have to wait for Derrick to wake and ask him. He refuses to tell me a thing. Malhia, leave Errol’s leg alone. He needs it to walk.”
“Arrow, you stay for food?” Malhia asked, her wide eyes pleading as she craned her neck to look at him.
“Of course, Little Mal. I always stay for food, don’t I?”
The answer brought the bright smile back and Malhia rushed inside to prepare the table. Errol hugged Shayla as he reached the doorway. “Another year, another surprise,” he said as they pulled apart.
Shayla put her hand on her hip and turned to glance into the house. “She’s been waiting for you for three days straight, staring out the window. I don’t know how she knows, but she claims she can hear Squall’s footsteps the second you’re a week out. But I think she’s just starting to understand when the flowers bloom you usually come around.”
Errol smiled. “Five is about the time most children begin to sustain permanent memories.”
Shayla caught sight of Undrell still standing by the two horses, the shock not fully gone. She waved to the Majister. “You can come in if you like. We always have plenty of food for guests. Master Undrell, was it?”
Snapping out of his stupor, Undrell lead the horses to a small water trough. “Master Undrell if there must be titles, otherwise Undrell is fine.”
Shayla nodded her head and disappeared into the house to prepare another seat. Joining Errol at the door, Undrell peered inside. Two beds could be seen through a small doorway, one occupied. The table took up most of the room in the main room with the wall to the left dedicated to the kitchen with the oven and shelves of jarred foods. To the right sat a chest and on top a collection of sewing material lay. An almost finished dress of magenta cloth hung from a makeshift clothesline.
“I’m going to need an explanation for this, Errol,” Undrell said, turning to him. “I don’t quite understand what’s going on.”
“Five years ago I saved Derrick and Shayla. She was pregnant with Malhia and I assisted in the birth. Every year I visit for lunch before heading south to Darenworth and on to the desert cities. Then on her birthday I visit for dinner and spend the night before returning to the Feilor Mountains.” Errol winked at Undrell. “My big secret is now revealed. I’m a godfather.”
“I think I’d have preferred a brothel.”
The two men walked inside, shutting the door behind them. Errol sat at the table while Undrell surveyed the house again. His eyes continuously glanced in at the sleeping figure on the bed.
Malhia climbed into Errol’s lap and played with the string of his cloak. “Mommy is making me a new dress for me to wear when we visit the town. I got to pick my favorite color and she’s almost finished, but she says I can’t wear it until after the next harvest moon comes. I don’t know what that means but she said it’ll be soon but I really want to wear it now even though it’s not finished. She says I can wear it for you when you come back but daddy thinks I should have another new dress by then cause I keep growing and I may not fit the dress before you come back. I also learned a new word. Madenta, it’s what mommy calls my favorite color but I always just called it Arrow’s eyes cause it’s the same color as your eyes. Is that the right word? Are your eyes madenta like my dress?”
Undrell stifled a laugh at the small girl’s long winded speech, having a harder time keeping it quiet when she tried to turn on Errol’s lap only to nearly fall off. He sat across from Errol, seeing how the tiny seat next to him was meant for a smaller owner, and watched with enthusiasm.
“I think the word you mean to say is magenta, little Mal.” Errol poked a finger at her nose making Malhia squeal with delight. “And yes, that is the correct word. I hope your father’s wrong though. I’d love to see your new dress. I can tell from here the stitches were done with great care. You’ll have to be very careful when you wear it not to dirty it.”
“That’s why I’ll only wear it when we go to town or when you come back.”
Shayla brought food to the table and smiled at Malhia. “Honey, go wake your father. He shouldn’t miss another meal, not when we have guests.”
Errol helped the now squirming Malhia to the floor. She ran into the other room and jumped onto the bed, issuing a loud cry from its occupant. Sounds of a small struggle drifted from the second room, followed by a yell of surrender. Malhia sprinted back out followed by a slower, untidy Derrick. The beginnings of a beard grew on his chin and his hair stuck up in places. His eyes spotted Errol and he nodded his head once in recognition. When he spotted Undrell he hesitated, but Undrell waved a friendly greeting, encouraging Derrick to sit at the table.
“Errol, didn’t expect to see you so early in the spring…and with company,” Derrick said.
“The snows thawed quickly this year. I figured the sooner I left the sooner I could enjoy Shayla’s food. This roguish fiend is—”
“Master Undrell of the Skeivar Isles,” Undrell interrupted. “I apologize for the additional mouth to feed, but Errol’s brethren and I have been far too curious about what he does here in the south when he leaves so early. Curious rumors were swirling and I thought it about time to find out who stole our brother’s heart.”
“He also has business in Augon Hall and didn’t want to travel there on his own,” Errol added, kicking Undrell under the table. To Undrell’s credit, he hid the pain well though a responding kick soon followed.
Derrick yawned suddenly, covering his mouth quickly. “Apologies. I haven’t been sleeping well the past few nights.”
“Shayla mentioned watchers. Have you been having trouble with the wolf packs again?”
“Unfortunately, no. Some of the local townsfolk have been hearing strange sounds outside their homes around midnight. When they investigate, there’s nothing to be seen, but in the morning blood is left on their doorsteps as though someone bled out. A couple of chickens and cattle have disappeared as well, but as far as we can tell the blood isn’t theirs. Watchers have been gathering at the center of town every night to see if we can learn of the culprit, but so far we’ve come up empty.”
“Malhia, help me with the rest of the food,” Shayla said, taking her daughter by the hand. Malhia’s eyes widened and she looked quickly at Errol before nodding. The two walked out of earshot, Derrick watching them with knowing eyes.
Shifting his eyes down to the table, Derrick lowered his voice to be sure Malhia couldn’t hear. “Two nights ago, a child went missing. Her ma and da put her to bed no problem, but come morning she was gone. Not a trace of a struggle or even any footprints to track.” He swallowed. “But as with the others, blood was found on their doorstep, too much to belong to a child. And last night while we were keeping watch, we heard a child’s laugh in the night. We all knew the girl, we all recognized it as her, but we couldn’t see a soul.”
Undrell crossed his arms over his chest and eyed Errol, but remained silent. Errol leaned on the table to ensure his voice wouldn’t be overheard. “Has this happened before? Blood appearing on doorsteps?”
“If it has no one remembers it. We’re going to have another watch tonight, but they’re pointless. None of us are willing to actually venture into the forest to find out what’s making the strange sounds.”
“That may be a good thing. Wouldn’t want any of you folk getting killed,” Undrell said.
Lifting his eyes to Undrell, Errol hoped the warning in his glare would keep the other man’s mouth shut. “Tell those participating in the watch tonight to stay home. Undrell and I will take their place and stop whatever’s causing this.”