Errol 2

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.”

Errol

Rain.

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.”

“What?”

“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.

“Malhia.”

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.