Early one Mertz morning Tobey ran along a path following a frozen stream, leaping over fallen trees and snow covered gnarled roots with grace and ease. The tops of massive pine trees reached high into the sky while their lower branches, covered with snow, scraped the ground. White oaks, their limbs barren of leaves, slept while waiting for the warm spring sun to wake them.
Unlike winter, childhood passes quickly. Tobey’s thirteenth naming day would be soon and in the eyes of his friends and family, he would become a man. He would no longer be an apprentice, but would be a full member of the village. He was proud that he would become a hunter, just like his father. Because of his exceptional skill at hunting, Tobey already hunted alone. For one so young, hunting alone was a great honor.
The sun shining through a clear blue sky warmed the snow covered frozen earth. In a few weeks, the snow would melt and the land would thaw. The oaks would awaken and the firm ground would turn into mush and then spring would begin in truth.
“Tobey!” Elanasa’s voice shattered the silence of the forest. Tobey and Elanasa were cousins and heading home from their grandmother’s village where they had spent the previous night. “Wait for me. You know I can’t keep up with you.”
Tobey leapt onto a fallen hackberry tree that overlooked the path and took a seat on its rough bark. From this vantage point, he watched Elanasa make her way along the trail after him. She wore the same style clothing everyone in the village did: brown leather boots, pants and vest made from deerskin and a loose fitting red shirt and hat made from rough woven cloth. Around her waist was a yellow sash with a long knife tucked into it. A tangled mess of brown hair poked out from under the hat.
Bright clear brown eyes stared up at Tobey. A jagged red scar ran down the left side of her jaw where a dog bit her when she was three.
“Told you,” Tobey said. “I’m the best there is!”
“So? It don’t mean nothing,” Elanasa said. “Doesn’t make you any better than me or the others.”
“You’re just jealous,” Tobey said.
“I am not!” Elanasa reached the fallen hackberry tree where Tobey was sitting and picked up a heavy stick out of the snow. Before Tobey could respond, she hit him squarely across the back with the stick. Even though Elanasa did not hit him very hard, the force of the blow knocked him from the tree and onto the ground. Elanasa climbed up to where Tobey had been sitting and took his place with a large smile on her face.
“That’ll show you,” Elanasa said. “Now I’m the best!”
Tobey lay sprawled on the ground where he had fallen. He had not made a sound. He was not moving.
“Tobey?” Tobey heard the concern in Elanasa’s voice, just as he wanted. “Are you all right?”
Tobey lay still as Elanasa jumped from the tree to the ground. When she leaned over him to check if he was hurt, Tobey grabbed her. He pulled her to the ground and rolled over on top of her. She squealed, and then screamed at Tobey in anger, “That’s not fair!”
Tobey, being larger than Elanasa, easily pinned her to the ground with his weight. She squirmed beneath him as hard as she could to escape, all the while screaming at the top of her lungs.
“You’re the one who hit me.” Fake innocence filled Tobey’s voice and he was smiling. “Straight, you could have hurt me.”
“I did not hit you hard enough to hurt you,” Elanasa said. “I was playing and you know it.”
Somewhere in the distance, a wolf howled. Tobey put his hand over Elanasa’s mouth to warn her. “Quiet,” Tobey said. “Did you hear that?”
Toby felt Elanasa try to bite his hand while her body grew tense under him. He yanked his hand away from her mouth.
“I’m not deaf, I heard it.” Elanasa said. “It’s a wolf.”
“It’s hunting,” Tobey said. “That was a call to the pack.”
Less than a mene later there was an answer to the first call followed by a series of barks and howls that echoed through the cold air. The calls came from several different directions, behind and from the south. A chill ran down Tobey’s spine.
“I think they picked up our trail,” Tobey whispered. “Run.”
Tobey jumped to his feet, pulling Elanasa up from the ground. Elanasa started running as fast as she could and Tobey tried to pull her along faster. For several menes, they ran in the direction of their village across the hard-packed snow covered landscape without seeing any sign of wolves. Even though the sun was warm, the air was frigidly cold. Their breaths bellowed from their lungs in clouds of vapor that swirled in the air as they ran. Snow crunched under their feet in time with their labored breathing.
“Stop!” Elanasa was breathing very hard and could not catch her breath.
Tobey stopped running. Elanasa gasped for air while Tobey scanned the forest for sign of the wolves. The area was clear.
“They must have lost sight of us,” Tobey said. “But they may be following our trail.”
For the next bell, Tobey and Elanasa continued walking back to their village. They stayed alert for any sign the wolf pack had picked up their trail again. The path they were on followed the stream all the way back to the village.
While stepping around a fallen tree, Tobey surprised a couple of white snow rabbits sitting in the center of the path. Tobey reacted before he realized what he had done. His hand darted to his belt and came back with balanced throwing daggers and without aiming, he threw the daggers at the hares. One blade flew true and stuck its target, but the other rabbit managed to jump to safety behind a tree. The snow under the fallen hare turned red.
“Are you stupid?” Elanasa asked. Her head turned from side to side as she looked around. “What if the wolves catch the scent of the blood?”
Tobey retrieved his daggers and stuffed the rabbit into a sack. “We have to eat don’t we?”
The village was located in a clearing a short distance away from the stream. When they drew near to their home, they sensed something was wrong. The wind carried the acrid scent of burning wood, not just the scent of a fire. Underneath the smoke was another smell that made Tobey worried. The forest was quiet with an eerie lack of sound.
“What is that smell?” Elanasa asked.
“It’s coming from the village,” Tobey said. He knew what the smell was. It was the sickly sweet smell of death mixed with the bitter copper tang of fresh blood.
“Go ahead,” Elanasa said. “We lost the wolves. I should be safe until I can catch up.”
Tobey embraced Elanasa and then touched the tip of his nose to hers. Their eyes locked for an instant.
“Be safe,” Elanasa said.
Tobey ran toward the village as fast as he could. Several times, he tripped over unseen roots or branches, but each time he rolled with the fall ending up on his feet.
When Tobey emerged from the trees into the clearing, his eyes could not comprehend what he was seeing. Carnage and devastation filled the clearing. The mutilated bodies of the people of his village littered the ground; something had ripped them to pieces. Their blood stained the snow crimson. The village’s wooden buildings and even some of the stone buildings were ablaze. Smoke rose from the ruins.
Tobey stood at the edge of the village, stunned and unable to move. Tears of rage and loss flowed down his face. Wolves could not have caused this massacre. The other villages would not have attacked. The three villages lived in peace; there was no war or strife between them. A horrific act like this was beyond comprehension.
Elanasa was out of breath from the hard run when she caught up with Tobey. Tobey tried to stop her before she saw what had happened to the village, but did not make it in time.
“Momma!” Elanasa screamed. “Poppa!”
Tobey grabbed Elanasa and wrestled her to the ground. “Elanasa, no, there’s nothing we can do.”
“Get off me! Let me go!”
“What if they’re still here?” Tobey asked.
“Whoever did this,” Tobey said. “They may still be here.”
“I don’t care,” Elanasa said. “I have to check on momma and poppa.”
Tobey let Elanasa go and rolled onto his knees. He watched Elanasa run toward her home, where she thought her mother would be. Tobey’s mother had died during the Red Plague the year after he was born and he did not want to go find his father. Maybe his father had been out hunting when the attack happened. Maybe he was still alive. As long as Tobey did not know for sure, there was a chance.
“Momma!” Elanasa screamed for a second time, but this one was more of a wail of agony.
After the initial shock wore off and Tobey was able to focus, he walked in a circle just outside the edge of the village. He examined the tracks and prints in the snow to get an understanding of what had happened. There were no tracks leading into the village. The only tracks in the area were those of the villagers as they went about their daily tasks.
At the very edge of the village, Tobey found a fresh mound of loose dirt pushed up at the base of an old oak tree. When he climbed to the top, he saw the mound actually encircled a hole that was slightly larger than man size in the ground. Tracks in the snow leading from the hole showed where four or five sets of prints came out of the earth and headed toward the village and then returned to the hole. The tracks left in the snow were odd. They were not the tracks of a man, or a beast, but were a bit of both. They were large, shaped roughly like a man’s foot, but each had four claws. The creatures’ misshaped feet had extended heels and flattened arches.
Tobey searched the village, his stomach churning in disgust. He found several broken stone blades used by the attackers among the dead bodies of the villagers. The villager’s bodies showed signs of mauling as well as cut marks. Some were missing parts where the beasts had feasted upon their prey. He was relieved he had not seen his father among the dead, there was still a chance he was alive.
“What are we going to do?” Elanasa trembled, but not from the cold. “They’re dead; Momma and Poppa are dead.”
Elanasa turned to face Tobey, then clung to him and cried. They stood together for a mene until the crying stopped, the tears were gone and the emotions drained.
“Grab whatever we can,” Tobey said. “We need to head back and tell the others what happened.”
“We won’t be able to make it before sunset,” Elanasa said. “We’ll freeze.”
“As long as we can get to the waypoint we will be fine,” Tobey said. “Grab some extra cloaks and blankets. I’ll get some food.”
“What about them?” Elanasa pointed to the corpses lying strewn all around the village. “We can’t just leave them lying there.”
“What would you have us do?” Tobey reached out and put his hand gently on Elanasa’s shoulder. “We can’t bury them because the ground is frozen. There are too many to burn. We can’t even put them inside to protect them from the wolves because the buildings are gone.”
It was two bells before sunset when they left the village. If they pushed, Tobey thought they might make it to the waypoint before the cold night air froze them to the bone.
Every hunter knows when the winter night skies are clear it will be cold. The full moon cast a pale light on the snow-covered ground lighting the way for Tobey and Elanasa as they ran well into the night trying to reach the waypoint between villages.
About three bells after sunset, the cold forced them to stop and make camp at the base of a fallen oak.
Tobey gathered enough wood to last through the night while Elanasa dug out a place to sleep under the base of the tree. She lined the dugout with deerskin blankets to block the cold wind. Once Tobey had the wood, he lit a fire at the entrance of the dugout. The flickering fire light provided protection as well as warmth.
During the night wolves hunted for prey, their howls echoing through the darkness. Every time one howled, Elanasa cringed in fear. Finally, she drifted into a troubled restless sleep. Tobey did not fear the wolves. He knew them for what they were, predators. He spent many nights alone in the forest and knew how to protect himself from them.
Beyond the limits of the firelight, Tobey saw two pairs of red eyes shining in the darkness. The wolves were afraid of the fire; they would not attack as long as it burned. Tobey prayed to the lord of the hunt for protection, to keep them safe until morning.
Tobey did not think he could sleep, yet he did. A short time later, he was startled awake by a snarling wolf less than seven feet away, the distance of a single leap. The fire had died down low enough to allow one of them to get too close.
His heart beat rapidly and adrenaline surged through him. He drew his dagger and then thrust a branch to the fire, stirring up the flames. The fire crackled, spitting red sparks and smoke into the air. The wolf growled and then leapt away into the darkness.
During the pre-light of dawn, the beasts left to seek other prey. Tobey drifted to sleep and the fire died.
“Tobey, wake up.” Elanasa pushed Tobey roughly. “It’s morning.”
Tobey looked around, confused. He was tired from lack of sleep and uncertain where he was. Then he remembered: the loss, the anguish. It all came flooding back in a rush of sorrow, but he had to keep it all together for Elanasa. He had to be strong for her.
“We have to go in case the wolves come back,” Tobey said.
“What about a fire to melt some water?” Elanasa asked. “I’m thirsty.”
“I’ll relight the fire,” Tobey said. “But we can’t stay here long.”
Tobey watched as Elanasa left the protection of the fallen tree to relieve herself. She did not leave Tobey’s sight, but squatted a short distance away from the fire. As he watched her, he realized he needed to relieve himself too. When Elanasa returned, he turned the fire over to her and he stepped around the tree.
Tobey finished voiding his bladder and then examined the snow around the area. He found two sets of wolf prints and followed them. Both wolves had circled their campfire during the night, at times moving in opposite directions. Tobey’s father had taught him to track and understand the behavior of the animals in their area. These tracks were of a mated pair of young wolves who had not formed a pack yet.
“Only two, that’s good,” Tobey said as he returned to the fire. He squatted next to Elanasa, taking the cup of warm water she offered to him. Tobey ate a few flatbread crackers from his knapsack. “It’s not a pack. We should be able to handle two of them if they come back.”
“I don’t understand what’s happening,” Elanasa said. She did not eat anything; she just drank the warm water. The cup trembled in her hand as she sipped from it. “The village was not attacked by wolves. Wolves could not do that, I mean they are not able to do that. The way they were …”
“I don’t understand either,” Tobey said. He finished his water and put his cup back into his knapsack. “You should eat something, at least some crackers.”
“I’m not hungry,” Elanasa said. “I don’t think I can eat.”
Tobey knew Elanasa needed to eat; otherwise she would not be able to run very far. But he did not want to force her to, not as upset as she was.
“We have to get back to Nanna’s village. Someone there will know what to do.” Nanna was what Tobey and Elanasa called their grandmother.
“What about the waypoint?” Elanasa asked. “You think somebody might be there?”
“I doubt it, but we can check.” Tobey extinguished the fire and then they headed east.
During the early morning hours, heavy clouds had moved in turning the landscape into a dreary, bleak gray. The clouds carried with them the threat of new snow.
After walking briskly for a bell, they reached a fieldstone building large enough for eight men to sleep inside. The waypoint was located halfway between the two villages. Its purpose was to provide shelter for hunters and travelers when away from their village. A log fence surrounded an area to the side of the building for stabling horses or other animals. Stacked next to the building was a cord of wood, cut and split, ready for the hearth.
A small yard set with flat stones lead up to the waypoint’s ironbound oak door. Tobey ran up to the door and pushed it open. The floor inside was hard-packed earth. Wooden shelves lined the walls and across the room from the door was a large hearth. Except for a few items on the shelves, the room was empty. Tobey checked the ashes in the hearth. They were still warm. Someone had been here recently. It might have been his father; at least he hoped so.
After leaving the waypoint, Tobey and Elanasa continued toward their Nanna’s village. They would run for short stints, but mostly walked through the snow. A few times Tobey spotted two wolves following the trail behind them. He assumed they were the same wolves that had nearly attacked them last night at their camp. Each time Tobey spotted them, they darted out of sight. Tobey, Elanasa and the wolves traveled this way for about two bells. Then, just before reaching the village, the wolves turned their snouts up to the sky and howled in unison. They appeared to catch the scent of something on the wind. The wolves darted around Tobey and Elanasa, coming very close to them as they ran and disappeared from sight in the direction of the village.
Tobey felt his heart sink as cold terror gripped him. He knew what he would find when he reached the village. He wanted to turn back, to go anywhere except where he knew he needed to go. He did not want to see what he would find at Nanna’s village, but he had no choice. He had to go on for Elanasa; he had to go on for his father.
Just as Tobey feared, Nanna’s village had suffered the same fate as their village. The attack had only been a few bells ago and death was everywhere. The buildings were still burning and the mauled bodies of the villagers lay in the snow. Severed arms, legs and a few decapitated heads were strewn around as if some sick creature had played with them like toys. Blood stained the snow a bright crimson. The two wolves that had followed Tobey and Elanasa were warily moving through the village, sniffing at the snow. Tobey knew something was making them uneasy, maybe the scent of the beasts that had made the odd tracks in his village.
Tobey wretched, the remnants of the crackers he had eaten for breakfast spilling onto the snow. Elanasa dropped to her knees crying sobs filled with anguish; an anguish far too deep to be felt by one so young.
“How can they all be gone?” Elanasa managed to gasp between sobs. “Momma, Poppa, even Nanna. Everyone is gone. We are all alone.”
Toby tried to think of something to say, something that would console Elanasa. Nothing seemed right. No words could fix everything that had happened since yesterday. “I’m here,” was all he said.
“We need to move away from the village,” Tobey said. “We could be in danger here.”
“Where can we go?” Elanasa turned to face Tobey. Her eyes were red from crying, but there were no more tears left.
“The closest village, other than ours, is two days away,” Tobey said. He knelt in the snow and using his finger, drew a crude map for Elanasa. “And we would have to double back by ours to get there. We will not be able to make it in the cold.”
“The waypoint?” Elanasa asked. “We could stay there until someone comes to get us.”
“What if those things find us there? They would kill us, just like everyone else. We would not be safe.”
Legends, stories and fairy tales, all cultures have them. In Tobey’s village, there was a legend of the Old-One who lives by the Cirrangill Sea to the north. Few villagers ever ventured near his abode; the legend said he had the ability to drive men mad or do worse things to them. Tobey’s father had warned Tobey to stay away from the Old-One, just as Tobey’s grandfather had warned his father.
“We can head north,” Tobey said. “Find the Old-One.”
“What? You can’t be serious.” Elanasa said. “I don’t want to go anywhere near him. They say he eats children.”
“Leavenfell is too far away,” Tobey said. “It’s cold, and I think it’s going to snow later. I’m not even sure where Leavenfell Keep is! We would be wandering around out here until we freeze.”
“You’re the hunter,” Elanasa said. Tobey could see she was tired, he heard it in her voice. “You know what’s out there; you know the places to go. I trust you.”
They traveled north all morning. They were no longer running. Step after step they trudged through the snow. Ice encrusted their boots and numb feet. Around their hands and fingers, they wrapped hide strips Tobey made from the rabbit he had killed the day before.
Shortly after mid-day, just as Tobey expected, it started to snow. The snow was lite at first, but then grew until it was so heavy it deadened all other sounds. As the snow grew heavier, so did the children’s feet and spirits.
They were no longer speaking. Talking required too much effort and the cold air burned their lungs. Toby knew Elanasa was exhausted. When Elanasa stumbled, Tobey had to pull her up and keep her moving. If Tobey stumbled, he knew there would be no one to help him.
The snow continued falling all afternoon as they trudged north, step after faltering step. Just before sunset, Tobey started looking for a place to make camp, but snow covered everything. Being this far north, the ground was rockier with fewer trees. Large fieldstones lay buried under the snow, some formed mounds; others were large enough for a man to take shelter on the leeward side against the wind.
Elanasa collapsed when Tobey let go of her. She fell limply into the snow and Tobey could not help her up again. Instead, he dragged her to one of the large rocks for protection from the wind and then covered her with the deerskin blankets.
All Tobey could find to use for a fire was scraggly red brush and scrubs sticking through the snow. He started a small fire that produced more smoke than it did heat and then sat next to Elanasa, making sure she was covered. He tried to share his body heat with her.
The sun was setting to the west and it was growing dark when the snow stopped. There was not enough fuel for the fire to last all night. If there were any wolves lurking in the darkness, Tobey knew he and Elanasa would not make it until dawn.
During the darkest part of the night, Tobey added the last bit of scrap wood to the fire. He called again on the lord of the hunt to protect them, then his head slumped forward onto his chest and he waited for death to come take him.
Nestor stood behind a large fieldstone watching two children trudge through the falling snow. The children were barely able to lift their feet as they traveled north and were leaving a trail anyone could follow. He had followed the children for a time, keeping well back so they could not see him. The longer he followed, the slower they walked. Just before sunset, they stopped and made camp on the leeward side of a large stone formation.
Nestor feared the children would not last the night. After the afternoon snow, the sky had cleared and it would get deadly cold before dawn. He knew he could help them, but he was uncertain if he should involve himself in their affairs. He had not received a sign from Thyerin, god of fate, and did not know if the children were why the Dance of Thyerin had brought him here. According to the Rhydd Pobl, the Dance of Thyerin was what they called following the will of Thyerin as he wove the tapestry of the future. All Nestor could do was wait so he would not make a mistake and follow the Dance along the wrong path. If the children were destined to die, then he could not prevent it.
Sometime after midnight, the last embers of the children’s fire went out. Nestor was alert, watching for any sign that he should help the children.
Nochturon was high in the sky casting a silvery moon glow over the snow illuminating the area as if it were almost daylight. Approaching from the north was a man followed by five large wolves, all headed straight toward the children. Nestor moved deeper into the shadows, trying to remain unnoticed.
Even in the bright moonlight, Nestor could not see much detail about the man. The man had thick unkempt black hair and a long goatee. He wore black boots, loose fitting pants, a white shirt and tunic. Wrapped around his shoulders was a rough fur cloak. The cold did not seem to bother him. He stopped at the rock where the children were sleeping and stood there looking at them for a mene. The wolves stopped when he did and sat on their haunches forming a semi-circle around the man.
“Look Titus, very curious. Wouldn’t you say so?” The man was either speaking to himself, or to one of the wolves.
The wolf closest to him made a chuffing sound in answer to the man’s question.
“Yes, I thought so.” The man looked at the remains of Tobey’s fire and shook his head. “They will freeze before dawn unless we do something. Do you think we should? Or should we let them die?”
A second wolf made a sound that was slightly different from the first, but it was still a chuffing sound.
“No, we’re not going to put them out of their misery,” The man said. Then he pointed at the wolf, “That’s not for us to decide. I could put you out of your misery …”
The wolf that had chuffed ducked behind one of the other wolves for cover. The wolves’ behavior made Nestor smile. They were acting like children instead of animals.
The man selected four of the wolves and motioned for them to come to him. One by one, he touched each of the four on the head as he softly spoke a word. A brief flare of green light sparkled over each of the wolves from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail. The wolves never made a sound. When the sparkle died away, they had changed into what Nestor would swear were fur rugs.
The man tossed all four furs into the air over the children. The furs spun and swirled, throwing snow and ashes from the dead fire up into the air in a flurry. They shimmered in the moonlight, leaving a faint magical tracery that lasted no more than an instant or two. Then the furs settled onto the ground covering the area where the children lay.
“That should keep them warm until morning,” the man said. Then he started walking in the direction he had come from. The lone remaining wolf ran ahead of him.
“I do hope they remember to bring the furs with them,” the man said to the wolf.
The display of power he had just seen amazed Nestor. He knew a few tricks, had a few magical skills, but a feat like that was far beyond him. When he was very young, an Araf woman adopted Nestor. His adopted mother had taught him to slip into the Travel Spaces, manipulate fire and light, and a few other things, but he would never have the talent to preform anything like what he had just witnessed.
Caution was the first lesson Nester learned when dealing with magic; never rush into anything. Magic is dangerous, even when you know what you are doing.
A couple of bells later, Nochturon dropped below the western horizon and darkness encompassed the land. Nestor wrapped up in a blanket and hunkered down next to a large stone where he could watch the children. He could not light a fire, lest someone spot it, so he adapted to the lower temperature and passed the evening without too much discomfort or further event.
In the pre-light of early dawn, Nestor brought his awareness back from the dream. He had not been asleep. Instead, he had been meditating. He was trying to follow the Dance of Thyerin, seeking for understanding and direction. His adopted mother could follow the Dance without effort; the dreams came to her unbidden. For Nestor, it took great effort to eke out a mere glimpse of the plan. Now he knew the children were part of the greater picture, and had a role to play.
Some menes later, the furs began moving. First, the girl started moving and then the boy. They crawled from under the furs and stood up, looking around confused.
Both children ate some rations from their knapsacks, and then the boy looked around for fuel to make a fire. His search was futile; he had used what there was in his fire the night before. A mene or so later the boy tossed the furs around, looking underneath them. He flipped one of the furs over and put some snow on top of the skin side. The snow started to melt. After a mene, they had water to drink.
“Wrap up in one of the furs,” the boy said. He wrapped a fur around him and used his sash to hold it in place. “They should keep us warm.”
“Where did they come from?” the girl asked while she wrapped one of the furs around her shoulders. “They stink like a wet dog.”
“Don’t know where they came from,” the boy said, “and I don’t care what they smell like. They’re warm, that’s all that matters.”
The children rolled up the two furs they were not wearing and tied them with string. After that, they broke camp and headed north following the tracks the man had left in the snow.
Nestor followed a good distance behind them, not letting them out of his sight until the children reached a good-sized shack with smoke coming from an opening in the roof. Beyond the shack, a short distance away was the sea. Just in front of the shack, seven small hutches that could have been doghouses sat empty. A pier extended out into the sea, but there was no water under it. The shoreline was well over fifty feet away. A small fishing boat tied to the pier sat bottomed on the rocky beach.
The children stopped walking and began arguing.
“Tobey, I do not want to go in there,” the girl said.
“Why not?” Tobey turned to face the girl. “The tracks lead us straight here, Elanasa.”
“Everyone I know is dead, except for you,” Elanasa said. “My parents, your parents, all our friends. I think you would be a little more cautious.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Tobey’s voice was on the edge of breaking. Tears filled his eyes. “If whoever is in there wanted us dead, why did they help us last night? We would have frozen if not for these furs.”
“I’m sorry Tobey, I’m just so frightened.” Elanasa open her fur so Tobey could put his arms around her. “They’re all dead. Everyone.”
“I know,” Tobey said. “Don’t cry. If you do I will too.”
Just then, the door to the shack opened with a loud creak and two large wolves bounded around the corner and started barking. The wolves’ heads turned as they looked from the children to where Nestor was hiding. Nestor was not sure if they were barking at him or the children.
Tobey and Elanasa screamed in terror at the sight of the wolves. Both children turned and ran back in the direction they had come, toward where Nestor was hiding.
“Will you shut up?” A deep voice called out. “You’ll scare our visitors.” Instantly, the wolves ceased barking and dropped to ground, hunched on all fours. They placed their heads onto their forepaws, but their eyes continued watching the children and Nestor. “Children, don’t run away and don’t be afraid. Danale and Lasha are not going to hurt you; they are more bark than they are bite. Come inside and bring the other one with you.”
Elanasa and Tobey stopped running and stood still. They turned back toward the shack. Standing at the edge of the cabin was the man Nestor had seen last night.
“I’ve got some warm bread and hot tuber soup with chunks of moose in it,” the man said. “Please do come in, it is cold out here. After all, you came to me. Where else do you have to go?”
The man spoke a word to the wolves and they leapt up, running toward the east and quickly vanishing from sight in the bright glare of the snow. Nestor loosened his sword in its scabbard, just to be ready in case.
“You can stay out here if you want, but I’m going back inside where the food is,” the man said. “Come in when you’re ready. Straight?”
Tobey and Elanasa stood where they were for another mene looking at each other before walking toward the shack. They rounded the corner and disappeared from Nestor’s sight. The shack door creaked as it opened and closed.
Nestor was unable to decide what he needed to do next until he spotted the two wolves, moving in on him from the east and the west. They had circled around and were sneaking up on him by crawling on their stomachs across the snow, very un-wolf like.
Nestor understood. The man meant for him to accept his invitation to come inside. As Nestor walked toward the shack, he drew his sword from its scabbard. The sword was made of Carrerra steel and forged by the Araf. His adopted mother had given it him the last time he had seen her.
Nestor walked around the corner of the shack and stood in front of the door. Standing there, he heard the children inside talking in excited voices and smelt the aroma of freshly baked bread. Suddenly, from around each corner of the shack a snarling wolf head appeared. Nestor opened the door and stepped through with sword in hand.
Inside the shack was comfortably warm. Furs covered the floor and walls. A fireplace was set into the far wall and a worktable covered with odd accouterments sat next to it. Other than a couple of stools, there were no chairs.
The children jumped up when Nestor entered, almost spilling their soup as they turned to face him. The man sat on a stool next to the fire holding a steaming bowl of soup in his hands. He turned to face Nestor and the man’s eyes flashed blue. Nestor felt the man’s gaze reach deep into his being, as if he were naked before his searching eyes. Nestor knew the man was a mage, just as he knew the man now knew many things about him.
“It’s okay Tobey, Elanasa,” the man said. He motioned for Nestor to sit next to him and extended the bowl of soup to him. “This is Nestor; he’s here to help you. Nestor, put your sword away and take this soup. You’re in no danger.”
Nestor put his sword away, sat on the stool and took the bowl. He dipped a piece of flat unleavened bread into the soup and ate. It tasted delicious, both the soup and the bread. The soup was made of large pieces of cut tuber mixed with a few good-sized chunks of moose meat and spices.
“Tobey and Elanasa were just telling me about an attack on their villages,” the man said. “According to them, it was very bad. No one was left.”
Nestor looked at the children, only to find they had fallen asleep lying on the floor. He found himself getting sleepy too. The man must have put something in the soup to make them sleep. Nestor thought he should be worried about something, but found it hard to focus. He drifted to sleep, leaving himself at the mercy of the stranger.
Kite the Elder sat on the end of the pier looking out at the sea. Physically he was there, but his mind was far away, in both time and space. He was unaware of the cold, snow-covered ground around him, unaware of the icy wind blowing in from the sea. Frost from his breath covered his black hair and goatee with ice. Eight years ago, he had been an aspiring young lord the house of Talador and engaged to Pecora Winthrop, sole heir of the Baron of Winthrop. Pecora fell sick with a mysterious illness no one seemed able to cure, so Kite went on a quest to locate an Elder to cure her. The Elders were a reclusive sect of wizards who do not participate in worldly affairs, except to intervene against those who would use magical prowess for personal gain.
After curing Pecora, Kite accepted the Elder Isentraum’s invitation to become his apprentice. Pecora joined him in his new life, but a life of isolation was not what she desired. She returned to the life she was born to, and Kite went to train with the Elders.
Kite had traveled to this remote Elder outpost to be alone. Using rumors spread around the area about the Old-One, the Elders caused fear in the villagers so anyone using the outpost could do so in isolation.
A few days before their arrival, Kite had a dream about the children and Nestor. He dreamed they were coming and would need his help, but he did not why. Now, he understood. He would do what he could to help them, but he would have to be careful if he became directly involved in their troubles.
Kite returned to the shack and sat on his stool by the fireplace watching Tobey, Elanasa and Nestor sleep. He studied his visitors while they slept, using a simple magical ability to see and learn things about them. The herbs he put into the soup would keep them sleeping and help them rest and heal. Kite knew the one named Nestor would wake first; he had some magical ability that gave him higher resistance to the herbs.
When Nestor woke Kite said, “Ah, good. Would you like some coffee? There’s nothing harmful in it, I promise.”
Nestor’s mind was clear, with no after effect of the herbs Kite had put into the soup.
“Before you ask, you were a little tense and running around with a sword,” Kite said. “It was easier and safer to let you sleep for a while than to have a confrontation where one of us might have gotten hurt.”
Nestor felt for his sword, but it was not there. “I was not going to attack you; I only had the sword drawn because the wolves were stalking me.”
“I know, I know. It’s all past us now and you’re safe.” Kite extended a mug of steaming coffee toward Nestor. “Here, drink this. And yes, the wolves were stalking you; but they were just having a bit of fun. There’s not much for them to do up here in winter. I don’t think they would have hurt you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Nestor took the mug and without thinking started to drink. After two sips, he set the cup down.
“Quit doing that,” Nestor said. “That’s the second time you forced me to obey. First it was the soup, then the coffee.”
“Resist harder. Close your mind and learn not to be manipulated,” Kite said. “You need to be in control of yourself; don’t let others do it for you.”
“You don’t look like the Old-One the children were looking for,” Nestor said. “You’re what, my age?”
“My name is Kite, and I am but an acolyte. An Elder in training,” Kite said. “The Old-One is just a useful legend for the villagers to believe in. The Elders have many places like this one where we can be alone.”
“I didn’t know there were any Elders left alive,” Nestor said. “I thought they were either all dead or just legends.”
“I assure you, they’re not all dead,” Kite said. “I know of at least three that are still alive.”
“How did you know my name?”
“I had a dream you and the children were coming,” Kite said. “I think I’m supposed to help you, but I’m not sure what I can do.”
“What do you mean?” Nestor drank more of his coffee.
“In my dream I saw you and the children. I knew I had to save them. That is why I knew where they were when I found them on the trail,” Kite said. “I do not normally have dreams that come true. I guess you would claim that Thyerin sent the dream to me so I could save the children for you.”
“I could have saved the children without you,” Nestor said.
“If I had not saved them, would you have let them die?” Kite asked.
Nestor did not answer.
“I understand what it means to have your hands tied and not be able to act,” Kite said. “It takes a certain kind of hardness for a person to be able to watch and not interfere.”
“You said you’re an Elder in training. What do you do?” Nestor asked. “I mean your magic?”
“The first thing my teacher taught was the magic of the spoken word.” Kite said. “Learning was the easy part. The hard part has been gaining control of the magic.”
“So, you say things and people just do what you say,” Nestor said. “Like making me drink the coffee and eat the soup.”
“Yes, and much worse,” Kite said. “If I say the wrong thing without thinking, I could cause harm to others without meaning too. Especially with children, they have little, if no, resistance. Until I learn to control it, people will take my words literally and act on them without thinking.”
“I think I understand,” Nestor said. Kite was not certain he did.
“My teacher also taught me the art of transformation,” Kite said. “I found transformation much easier to learn.”
Nestor took another sip of coffee. Both men sat in silence for a while.
“I need to check on my companions,” Kite said. He rose from his seat on the stool, picked up the two rolled up furs and the two furs the children wore and moved to the door. “If the children wake, try not to scare them. I will return in a few menes.”
Kite walked around to the rear of the shack where the seven doghouses were. One by one, he dispelled the magic he used to transform the living wolves into furs. The wolves growled at Kite, retreated to their houses, and sulked.
“I wasn’t going to leave you that way,” Kite said. “You’ll forgive me as soon as it’s time for dinner.”
When Kite went back inside the shack, both children were awake. They had moved to the far side of the room away from Nestor and were watching him warily.
“Tobey, Elanasa, you’re awake,” Kite said. “Are you hurt?”
“You’re not the Old-One,” Elanasa said. “You can’t be the Old-One, you’re not old. You’re not going to eat us are you?”
“No, I’m not the Old-One and I’m not going to eat you,” Kite said. “My name is Kite. You have nothing to fear as long as you are here with me.”
“If you’re not the Old-One, where is he?” Tobey asked.
“I think he lives in a cave a few leagues to the west,” Kite said. “I’ve never seen him either.”
“Straight,” said Tobey.
“Nestor, you have to take the children to see the Baron of Leavenfell. From what the children have told me, there is great danger coming from under the ground. You have to tell the baron so he can protect his people.”
“Leavenfell is twenty five or more leagues to the south,” Nestor said.
“Yes, Leavenfell Keep is several days travel away. That is why you need to take them through the Travel Spaces to get them there as quickly as you can.”
“No,” Nestor said. “The Travel Spaces are dangerous. I can’t take children there. What happens if they get scared and run off? They would be lost.”
“If you don’t the things that attacked their village will attack others.” Kite said. “You follow Thyerin’s Dance, do you not?”
“I try,” Nestor said.
“I think that is why you are here,” Kite said. “So far, two villages have been attacked by creatures from under the ground. The attacks were bad and there is very little time left.”
“Can’t you just zap the children to Leavenfell Keep? Maybe open a magical door, I have heard about those before. Or just send a message?”
“No. I have not learned how to teleport yet,” Kite said. “I know of someone who used to be an Elder, Vard, who could construct magical doors that allowed him to travel vast distances, but I do not have that type of power. The Mystics had devices they used, such as the Amulet of Hanarn, to allow them entrance to other realms. The Araf, as far as I know, are the only ones who can use the Travel Spaces. Since you have Araf training, you know how to enter the spaces. They gave you a very special gift indeed.”
“Straight, let’s say I manage to get the children to Leavenfell Keep safely, how are we going to stop the beasts?”
“That would depend on Roderick, the Baron of Leavenfell,” Kite said. “He might just reward you and send you on your way, or he may send you monster hunting. Those two children have seen a lot in the last few days. More than any children should see. I expect you to protect them until they get to the keep. Once there, I’m sure the baron will find new homes for them.”
Nestor finished his coffee and held his cup out for more.
“You definitely don’t sound like an Elder,” Nestor said.
“What does an Elder sound like?” Kite asked. “I’m wise enough to know that I don’t know anything. All I know is that you are here for a reason, but you do not know what it is. Thyerin has woven you into the Dance and you must play your part.”
“You sound like my mother,” Nestor said.
“Thank you,” Kite said. “I’m sure your mother is very intelligent and wise.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Nestor said. “I meant using guilt and responsibility to get someone to do what she wants them to do.”
“There is a third village close to those that were attacked that is still in danger,” Kite said. “I will warn them and do what I can to help while you take the children to see the baron.”
By mid-morning, Nestor and the children were ready. Kite watched as Nestor blindfolded Tobey and Elanasa. Then Nestor took both their hands and turned southeast to face the direction of Leavenfell Keep. A brief instant later, they vanished in a blue-violet flash of light.
“What do you say, Titus?” Kite stroked the wolf’s head. “Wouldn’t it be marvelous to be able to vanish in a flash of light?”
The wolf chuffed in response, as if to say, “Straight.”
“Well come on, we need to get a move on if we’re going to make it to the village in time,” Kite said.
The seven wolves bounded ahead of Kite, ranging through the countryside as he walked toward the southwest. He did not know what would be waiting for him or what he would find when he got there. He only knew he would have to do his best against the unknown and hope that his best was enough.