Handsome for a half-breed.
Feran had often been called that. His mother, as mothers do, had of course always said only the first part of the statement. Mothers never seem to notice the oddities in their own children, and if they do, they don't care. Still, unmentioned as it may remain, the outline of his sleeping face against the pillow betrayed Feran's heritage quite readily.
That was another term he had come to terms with. Actually, that was an overestimate, but one that he didn’t really care to point out in conversation. With large blue eyes, a well shaped nose, and a small, soft smile that several considered his most endearing feature, he was often told that he had been lucky with the rolling of the parental dice.
He stirred in his sleep, one hand lifting to run through his thick russet hair, brushing back the forelock that permanently managed to get into his eyes, fingers tracing back and along the edge of one large, triangular ear – an ear that didn’t quite belong on an otherwise human head. A vulpani ear.
The most common term he heard, one used for all those like him. Non-specific, not particularly threatening, it served the general populace well, and Feran had come to accept it as a part of his identity.
That was worse. There were, of course, always those that would single out any trace of uniqueness and use it as a weapon, and Feran was little stranger to such behaviour, being quite the most outwardly unique person in the village.
His counter weapon against those who singled him out, an affectionate nickname among those he cared for, it was the only name he ever went by anymore, and one of the few things about himself that he felt satisfied with. If feral he was bound to be among pure blood humans, then Feral he would be among all races.
Around him, the dark house was quiet and still. Beyond the window, the village was lit only by starlight, the residents having long since retired to bed after their busy days. At the centre of town, the watchtower showed the only signs of activity. Rising high above the darkened roofs around, torchlight shone from each corner of the tall structure, a beacon of security for those who slept nearby.
Just visible in the night, a solitary figure could be seen making its way up the steps that spiralled around the outside of tower. In her hands, she carried a tray, piled with plates and a large metal pot.
“Hello Merina,” the lutrani guard at the top of the steps said with a smile on his round face. “Back with the rations again?”
The cloaked woman lowered her hood with a flick of her head, her blonde hair shining in the torchlight.
“Well someone has to keep you lot awake,” she chuckled. “You know what they say about an army marching on its stomach.”
The guard laughed. “Well, with a stomach that man of yours’ has, I don’t see a lot of choice!”
“Hey,” Merina aimed a kick at him, but he dodged out of the way reactions every bit as swift as the otters that his race was often compared to. Unlike the other races, it was a comparison that the lutrani didn’t seem to object to, taking an amused and tolerant view of the animals that could easily be their smaller, less intelligent cousins.
“Now, now,” he smiled, wagging a finger. “The captain wouldn’t like it if you put his best guard out of action.”
“Best?” she raised an eyebrow. Not quite intentionally, she glanced out over the rooftops, her gaze alighting upon a house near the west end of town.
“Sakes, woman,” the guard chuckled, a lopsided smile on his cheery face, his round ears taking on an amused angle. “Give the lad and lass enough credit to not set fire to the house while you’re out.”
“I’m sorry,” Merina said. “I just feel bad about leaving them sometimes.”
“Nah, they probably don’t even know you’re gone. I know how I could sleep when I was young.”
“I know how you can sleep now,” Merina countered. “I’ve seen you when you think nobody’s watching.”
“Heh, yeah, well...” the guard coughed. “I’d be grateful if you didn’t mention that to the captain, eh?”
“As if I would,” she smiled. Entering the top of the tower by the arched doorway, she called out loudly. “Honey, Pallin’s been dozing again!”
“Oh, you...” the lutrani shook a furred finger at her as she laughed.
“That’s nothing new, it’s only news when he wakes up,” a deeper voice came from inside the tower, a distinct laugh audible behind the words.
“Gee, thanks for that vote of confidence, cap,” a hurt voice called in through the doorway.
“No problem, Pallin, I know the excellent quality of our town guards.”
The lutrani couldn’t think of a comeback to this one, and settled instead for rolling his eyes at the stars above before following Merina inside. On the other three walls, doorways lead out onto balconies, giving the occupants of the tower an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside and shoreline, their line of sight reaching several miles out over the dark ocean. From each of these doorways came the other members of the night watch.
Barrod, a heavyset leonin with one ear permanently lowered by an old wound, his huge hands easily carrying the pike that he considered part of the uniform that he could only just squeeze into. Despite his size, he cultivated a knack of moving his feline form with cat-like stealth, and had a reputation for sneaking up on people to make them jump, whereupon he would let out a laugh that carried clear across the village.
Devvy, the small muscai, his round pink ears barely reaching the level of Barrod’s navel, bright eyes constantly on the alert, small hands clutching the bow that he never put down while on duty. Quiet as a mouse would have been an understatement. Where Barrod was stealthy but loud of voice, Devvy’s movements wouldn’t have been noticed above the sound of a blade of grass bending in the wind, his voice rarely rising over a whisper.
Carrum, a tall, slender lupari woman, and a perfect match for the long, slender rapier that never left her side, a hangover from more mercenary days. Her canine tail wagged from side to side as she walked, ever an indicator of her mood, and currently set in bouncing compliment to the smile upon her slim muzzle.
Perched upon the edge of the table, Merina had set down the tray she had been carrying and was exchanging a kiss with the bearded man sitting in the chair beside it, his papers getting squashed under the folds of her skirt.
“All right, enough of that,” Pallin instructed as he leaned his pike up against the wall. “The troops are hungry you know, cap, they won’t stand for much more delay.”
The bearded man looked up at him. “When the delay is my wife,” he informed the lutrani pleasantly. “The troops can either stand for it, or stand outside hungry for the rest of the night.” He smiled as the lutrani raised his hands in a gesture of acquiescence, making sure to lean up and catch another brush against Merina’s lips before sitting back with a grin.
“I never do understand how you balance that,” he gestured to the stack of plates and the pot that Merina was now setting down on the table.
“Magic,” she said simply, beginning to ladle portions of rich stew onto the plates.
“Aye,” the man rested his cheek on one hand. “You are.”
She blushed, and opened her mouth to speak.
The watchtower shook all the way to its foundations, the stack of plates jumping and clattering back together.
“What the hell?” the bearded man was on his feet, reaching for the bow beside the table as the guards scattered, each to their assigned balcony.
“Don’t see a thing!” Pallin shouted into the tower.
“Nothing here,” Barrod’s deep voice came back, a moment before Carrum’s softer tones echoed the leonin’s words.
“Devvy?” the captain called, ready to exit onto whichever balcony he was needed. “Devvy! Call out man!”
“Dammit,” the man growled, stepping out onto the muscai’s assigned balcony. It was empty. “What…?”
A rush of air sounded from overhead, the beating of giant wings, a dark shadow against the midnight sky, but in a moment it had passed on, its darkness merging with that of the night.
A streak of light lanced out from somewhere above the tower, crashing into the houses at the east edge of the village. Thatched roofs burst into flame as stone and wood were blasted away from the impact.
“How can there be lightning?” Merina shouted, gripping tight to her husband’s arm, her eyes scanning the starry and cloudless sky.
Another flash of light, somewhere over to the south, finding its mark and setting more houses ablaze. In the streets below, lit now by the flickering flames, those on the tower could see the villagers appearing in their doorways.
Again the rush of air that made the torches flicker, a creak of giant wings as the shadow rushed overhead.
“Alarm!” the bearded man shouted down into the street below as he saw faces turn to look at him. “Sound the alarm! To arms!”
Feral rolled onto his back and looked at the dark ceiling. Something had woken him, he felt, but his head was still fuzzy from sleep. He ran a finger around the slender chain about his neck, adjusting the hang of the ‘lucky’ pendant, a gift from his childhood, and one he had somehow never gotten rid of. A great crash of thunder shook the house, strong enough to shake the diamond cut glass in the windows. He sat up. Storm?
Another roll of thunder, loud, and barely behind the flare of light. From the next room, he heard his sister cry out. Pulling trousers, shirt and boots on with haste, he hurried to her.
“Shara?” he called out, having to raise his voice as another peal of thunder sounded, seeming to shake the whole house. “Shara?” he located her after a moment, standing by the window, looking out over the village, down the slope of the hill.
“Look!” she pointed through the window in the direction of the watchtower.
Flames flickered up its flanks, embers fluttering high into the sky like glowing butterflies. All across the village, columns of thick, black smoke rose towards the stars from a multitude of glowing fires. From beyond the tower, a flash of lightning flared, striking its base.
“Mom went to see dad…” Shara started. Feral’s eyes widened.
“I have to go help! Shara, stay here!” he instructed, and she looked at him with wide eyes.
“I don’t wanna stay here, I wanna come with you!”
“Shara, please,” Feral knelt down just as another crash of thunder rolled over the house, so strong that the glass in the windows shattered. Grabbing her tightly, Feral turned his back to put himself between his sister and the debris as her scream rang in his ears.
Half deafened, he turned back to the window to see the house not fifty yards away, its roof collapsed and ablaze. All thought of leaving Shara alone went out of his head.
“Shara,” letting go of her shoulders, Feral grabbed her shoes from beside the bed. “Shara, I need you to be brave,” he told her as her expression threatened tears. “I need you to put these on, and we’re going to go find mom and dad, ok?”
She brushed the back of her hand over her eyes, then nodded, her face thrown into momentary relief as another flare of light came through the shattered window. Feral put his hands over her ears and pulled her against him as the thunder crashed over the house. He waited a heartbeat after it had passed.
“Come on! Quick!”
Even now, Feral had to admire his little half-sister. Afraid, confused, many children her age would have cried out and tried to hide from the things outside… but Shara simply nodded, and put her shoes on. He hurried them out of the room as it shook again, grabbing their cloaks in the hallway as they passed, wrapping hers tightly around her. The house seemed to groan around them as they fled out into the night.
Keeping a tight hold on Shara’s hand, Feral hurried them down the road, coughing as the smoke from the nearby houses filled their lungs. Should they turn back? No, not if they were going to find their parents. Their shadows danced across the cobbles as they ran for the watchtower at the centre of the village.
Behind them, somewhere in the dark sky, a whoosh of air. Instinctively grabbing his sister, Feral pulled them both into a gap between two stone walls that somehow remained standing. A bright flare of light followed them, a thunderous crash that left their ears ringing. Above that dreadful sound came another far worse. Screaming.
“What is it?” Shara whispered, her face hidden in Feral’s shirt.
All he could do was shake his head as a dark shadow passed overhead. He waited a moment, then they moved on again.
Flames roared on both sides of the street now, buildings collapsed or still collapsing, their thatched roofs having spread the blaze quickly and mercilessly. Seeing a blackened shape in the window of one house, Feral covered his sister’s eyes as they hurried past, bent low to stay under the billowing smoke.
Again Feral heard the sound above, but all he could do this time was press them both to the ground as the thunder rolled across them, shielding their faces with his cloak as hot ash and debris blew towards them bearing with it sounds he would later remember only in nightmares as the flames consumed their victims. Scrambling to his feet, he looked at his sister, her face blackened by the smoke, tear tracks under both eyes, her lower lip trembling. Should he run with her? Away from the village?
“I want to find mom and dad,” she said, guessing his thoughts and shaking her head, the heated breeze ruffling her hair.
Biting his lip, Feral nodded.
By the time they reached the square around the base of the watchtower it seemed as if the whole world was on fire. Smoke, ash, and glowing embers filled the air, gusting around them as they clung together.
“Mom!” Shara pointed upwards to the top of the tower. Feral followed her gesture, white faced. His mother, step-father, and the town guards stood atop the balcony, looking down upon the fire at the base of the tower. He could see them looking back at him, one pointing to the north.
“The well!” Feral exclaimed. If he could just calm the flames around the stairs… He skidded across the cobbles, grabbing with shaking hands at the pump, heaving the handle with all his strength, the surging water quickly filling the bucket that stood ready.
He looked up again as he lifted the bucket. A great, dark shadow loomed behind the tower, the orange light of the flames highlighting scaled skin. Giant talons dug into the slate tiles of the roof, the sinewy body heaving as the huge wings beat the air, the creature's entire strength pulling at the tower. Wood cracked, and stone crumbled. Feral had one, last glance of the guardsmen as they clung to the railing before the entire structure slid sideways.
“Mommy!” Shara’s scream pierced his ears as he swept her up in his arms, dragging her away as the watchtower fell across the square, stone and splinters bombarding them as he pulled them to shelter behind the great, ornate fountain that stood behind the pump. In good times, water could be sent running down from the top of the marble structure, striking the hundred silver bells that adorned its sides. Now the only water that fell upon it was Shara’s tears as she tried to free herself from her brother’s grip.
With one final tug, he managed to pull her down into the slosh trough around the fountain, sitting knee deep in the cold water, her face pressed against his chest as she sobbed bitterly into his shirt.
A great thud and crunch sounded from across the square, and Feral looked up. The giant creature had landed, its scales glistening pale silver in the firelight, its eyes glowing like twin moons. From its back, a shadow detached itself, vaulting to the ground.
Feral stood, clasping Shara to his side as the rider strode towards him, the light of the fires glittering on its armour.
“Why?!” Feral cried, his cheeks streaked with tears. “Why did you do this?”
The rider shrugged and removed its metal helm. Her tawny fur shone in the firelight as she continued to advance upon Feral.
“Because I can,” she said simply. “Because there are those who need to know that I can. You should be proud, you’re a part of a turning point in civilisation. With this proof is going to come a great revolution. Is this your sister?”
Feral pushed Shara behind him.
“Half-sister, I suppose. Sweet,” the leonin woman said, her green eyes gleaming in the dancing light of the burning village. She knelt down, looking past Feral to Shara. She held out her gloved hand.
“How old are you, sweetie?” the leonin woman's voice was suddenly syrupy.
“Get away from her!” Feral demanded, backing up, pushing Shara behind him.
Looking up at him for a moment, the leonin hesitated, then stood. “Boy,” she said flatly. “If you say another word I will kill you both. The only reason I haven't yet is because you've no chance against me.”
Feral felt a shiver run all the way down his spine. He knew she meant it. She was taller, broader, stronger, and from the look of her, a trained fighter. What was he to do? Run? He doubted he could escape the leonin, especially not with Shara, and abandoning his sister was not an option.
“How old are you, girl?” she asked again.
Shara clung to Feral's hand.
“Tell her to answer me,” the leonin sighed, looking at Feral, her eyes like a snake about to bite.
He could feel Shara looking up at him for guidance. Mouth dry, he nodded.
“Eight...” Shara said quietly.
“Oh,” the leonin woman clapped her hands in a strangely girlish gesture. “Oh my, how perfect!” she stepped forwards, and Feral intercepted her. She blinked down at him for a moment, an expression of surprise and amusement on her face. “Gutsy,” she told him, one eyebrow twitching upwards. Then she hit him on the side of the head so hard that the world spun around. The fountain's water trough came up to meet him as the sky wheeled overhead. Shara's scream rang in Feral's ears, and the world faded to darkness.
She watched him floating face up for a moment until it seemed evident that he wasn't going to get up again. Smiling with sickening sweetness, she easily grabbed Shara's arm, free hand delving into a leather pouch at her waist to uncork a small vial. With one quick motion she splashed the contents into Shara's face. The girl gave a shocked gasp, an inhalation, then staggered and slumped to the cobbles, held upright only by the leonin's grip.
“Number four,” the leonin woman smiled happily to herself. Turning, she raised one hand, beckoning to her giant mount as she hummed a jaunty tune. It was a good start to her week.
No… it hurts too much to wake up. Don’t move, maybe it will go away.
Cold… cold and wet.
Memory. Oh gods!
Sitting up suddenly, chill rain running down his face, Feral looked around.
The smoke and flame had gone, doused by the rain that fell steadily from the leaden sky. Around him, the village had been reduced to a skeleton, stripped of its wooden flesh leaving only blackened stone bones.
There was no sign of her. Not near the fountain, not in any of the streets adjacent as he staggered through the rain.
“Shara!” bracing himself against the nearest building, he knew it was hopeless even as he shouted for her.
He was shivering violently now. Something in the back of his head kicked him into motion. Shara wasn't here, which meant she wasn't dead... Get dry... get warm... don't die... find her... Follow the plan.
His head hurt horribly. It felt like the leonin's gauntlet contained iron knuckle plates. Raising his hand, he discovered he was bleeding, but not badly. The cold water had probably kept the bleeding minimal, taken away most of the swelling. What an irony it seemed that after so much death, random chance may have helped him to live.
Standing at the edge of the village, his father’s house was a sorry sight. Belonging to the guard-captain, it alone was roofed in slate in preference to thatch, set apart slightly from the other houses to allow a large garden area. Though the windows were shattered, the garden blackened, the structure itself had not been set ablaze.
Why couldn’t he have insisted Shara stay here?
Feral practically fell through the doorway, landing on his knees in a hunched ball of misery.
Why did his mother have to choose that time to take a meal to the guards? Why couldn’t his stepfather have taken the night off? Why…?
Shivering, pausing when harsh sobs overcame him, he managed to crawl up the stairs. Stripping his sodden clothes, he pulled the blanket off his bed and huddled into the corner, tears staining the cloth.
If only he had stayed… if he had made Shara stay…
The pendant around his neck bumped his arm as he wrapped his arms around his knees. He stared at it.
Shimmering and oddly shaped, it seemed to shift colours from different angles. It was never easy to say what it was made of. Metallic, yet rock like, and with a hint of grain that suggested a more wooden origin, nobody Feral had ever shown it to – and there were very few – had ever been able to identify it satisfactorily. It always appeared as if it were highly polished, like there should be a visible layer of varnish upon it, but there was no hint of translucency at the edges. Held up to the sun, it had often captivated Feral by the way the light seemed to run around the cracks and angles like liquid, shifting and shimmering between his fingers. He remembered when it had been given to him by his mother’s middle aged uncle.
“Now you look after this,” the grey haired man had said with a smile, kneeling down as he fastened the pendant around the five-year-old Feral’s neck. “This is a lucky stone, and if you keep it with you, it will help you out in tight spots.” Feral had nodded silently, his large blue eyes studying the stone with interest as the man stood and ruffled his hair.
“Lucky…?” he whispered. He closed the fingers of one hand about it, so tightly that the corners of the stone bit painfully into his palm. “If there’s any luck left… please… help…”
Though Feral didn’t know it, the events of the previous night had not gone unrecorded. Across field and forest, hill and hedgerow, shore and ocean, deep in the workshops of the Order of Magi, powerful instruments attuned to eldritch magics hinted at the powers unleashed that night. Nor, to the consternation of those entrusted to watch over them, was this the first such reaction. Four times in the past two weeks the great instruments of the magi had given forth their warnings. Four times had the currents of the magical ether had been disturbed more strongly than in long centuries past.
To one man, the latest reports were of even greater concern than his brethren.
“Sir?” his apprentice asked him quietly as she packed his travelling case with the items would need on his journey. She paused for a moment, brushing back a loose strand of hair. Small of build and soft of voice, discovering the magic within her had brought her the blessings of a confidence that she would otherwise have lacked – and the displeasure of her family, her chosen path not being at all what they had planned. There was at least one person however, who found her interests and talents to be far from disappointing.
“Hmm?” the old man smiled at her, pausing as he investigated the bookshelf at the back of the room, wondering if there was anything vital that he should pack.
“I know this may be none of my business, but you seem very tense about this meeting,” the slim young woman began rolling the maps, binding them with a brightly coloured cotton ribbon, and slotting them carefully into a cylindrically shaped leather carrying case. Apparently beyond her control, one foot tapped the floor rapidly, as it often did when she felt uncertain. “I mean, they do this every six months, don’t they?”
The old man paused to regard her, raising one hand to scratch his white beard, a habit he had never quite been able to rid himself of, and to which he still fell prey when under stress.
“They do,” he said at last. “But usually there is little more to be discussed than an exchange of pleasantries and a confirmation of mutually protected trade routes. This time…” He sighed heavily, folding his arms, and walking to the window to look out at the bright morning, his white robes rustling across the stone floor.
“What, sir?” she urged, hoping that the old man was not about to lapse into one of his thoughtful silences. Thankfully, he seemed to give himself a mental shake at her words, and continued.
“Tallow, the village that was destroyed yesterday was not the only incident of its kind that has happened in the last few months.” Her eyebrows rose. That was not common knowledge in the nearby town for sure, else she would have heard it on one of her trips for supplies.
“Pirates?” Tallow asked, momentarily pausing from her task of trying to fit numerous leather bound books into a case that didn’t seem to be quite large enough.
“Possibly,” the old man murmured, moving to the doorway, gazing out at the trees beyond the courtyard wall. “But I do not think so. Pirate raids are spread out over a far greater range, randomised to make them unpredictable so that the need for military aid cannot be anticipated. Then too, they generally don’t kill all the inhabitants of the villages and towns they attacked, preferring to take prisoners for use as slaves and… other purposes,” a look of disgust crossed the old man’s face, his eyebrows drawing together in a scowl.
“Then who…?” she trailed off.
“That is what concerns me. It seems probably that we have an enemy force operating out of one of the counties along the coast, or possibly somewhere within the kingdom of Lordenor, but the who and why remain a mystery.”
“I see…” she tried to squash the lid of the case closed, failing miserably as the books remained rebelliously too numerous for the space available. Rolling up the sleeves of her robe, she began rearranging them again. “But isn’t that a military matter? Something for the Freelands council to deal with?” she asked. Something about the way her mentor was regarding the situation troubled her.
“One might say so, yes.”
“Then why do you seem so bothered, sir? If it’s only a military matter, that has nothing to do with us, surely?”
The old man turned in the doorway, framed against the brightness of the day outside, regarding her intently. His eyebrows rose slightly. “You know, Tallow, I do believe that I sometimes underrate your intelligence. And your perceptiveness,” he smiled and she turned her eyes away, unable to meet his gaze, a slight pink flush showing on her cheeks.
“You are of course, quite right,” he continued. “If I believed this were a military matter alone, then I would not be as concerned as I am. I am worried because the Detectors have reported the use of powerful magic at each time an attack has occurred.”
“You think the two are linked,” Tallow said, and it was not a question, for she could read it in his face.
He nodded in confirmation nonetheless. “I fear the two are linked. I would take great pleasure in the discovery that there is no connection, because if what I and other magi have felt is related to an aggressive military force…” he did not complete the sentence, his eyes seeming to lose focus for a moment as if studying the future possibilities.
“I see,” Tallow whispered, subdued. “Perhaps it would be wise for me to come with you…”
“No,” he interrupted her with a shake of his head. “No, I do not think that will be necessary. I will contact you should I wish you to join me.
“Yes, sir,” the apprentice bowed her straw-blonde head for a moment, before attempting one last effort to close the case with the books, failing by half an inch.
The old man smiled and moved over to her. Reaching out, he grasped the lid of the case, whispered a single word, and flicked it firmly shut, fastening the straps with his free hand. “It’s all in the wrist,” he said, winking at her and gaining a smile in return. He headed for the door to the hallway. “Now if you will excuse me, I must have one more look around my workshop. I shall be ready to leave in about an hour.”
Tallow nodded, wondering, not for the first time, what he was looking for. He seemed to have been doing that a lot today, but every time the matter came up, he had been leaving the room to look for whatever it was, and she never found an appropriate time to ask.
Nearly an hour later, she was carrying the various pieces of baggage out into the courtyard. Finding the old man's horse drinking from the small stream that had been diverted under the surrounding wall, she walked over to her, checking the straps of the saddle.
“Now you take care of him, you hear?”
The mare’s head raised to look back at the young apprentice, her chestnut face looking almost offended. Tallow smiled. “Yeah, yeah, I know, you always have before. Now hold still.” The horse remained obediently motionless as Tallow strapped the saddlebags into place, stretching up onto the tips of her toes to reach the middle of the mare’s broad back. Maps, books, a sailor’s lantern to provide light in even the roughest weather (not that the old mage was likely to be reduced to candles for illumination, but it never hurt to be prepared), spare clothing, and provisions enough to last at least a week.
The mare looked slightly reproachful as the last of the food bags was strapped to her. “Oh hush,” Tallow grumbled. “It’s better to overfeed him than not to provide enough, all right?” The mare whickered, shaking her head and mane. “Yes, well, I suppose you do have a different perspective on things,” Tallow sighed. “Still, unless you really think it’s too heavy…” A vague snort of acquiescence. “Good girl.”
Tallow looked to the still empty doorway. “I hope he doesn’t get himself into any trouble,” she murmured. A broad nose prodded her shoulder, and she giggled. “Yes, it’s going to be your job to keep him out of it, all right.” Snort. “But I must admit I am a little worried,” the young woman patted the side of the mare’s neck. “If he is right that there is a connection between what the Detectors picked up and the attacks that have been occurring… I don’t like to think what we might be facing. It just… leaves me feeling helpless, you know?” she looked the horse in the eyes.
The mare lifted her head, bringing her chin to rest squarely on top of Tallow’s head. She laughed.
“All right, all right, that’ll do. I’ll stop worrying about it. You save your mothering for Mr Forester, ok?” One hand stroked a chestnut ear as the horse removed her chin from the young woman’s head.
“Got it!” the old man’s voice floated over her shoulder, and she turned to find him wearing an exuberant expression, beaming at her happily, his white robes now supplemented with a thick blue cloak, and a worn looking staff. “Now,” he continued, hurrying over to her, holding something small and metallic in his hand. “Cassanya hasn’t arrived yet, has she?”
Tallow shook her head. “Not that I...”
“Well, nevermind,” the old mage interrupted. “You’ll have to send this out to her. It’ll help her find him, I hope.”
“I understand, sir, she’ll find him, don’t worry.”
“I just hope he still has the Attractor with him... I know the pointer’s got a lock on someone, and it won’t hold that unless the owner passes it on willingly, or...” the old man trailed off. “Well, I shall have to hope. You tell Cassanya that if she doesn’t find him with this, she’s to search every town and village that side of the mountains. I wrote down his description, I doubt she’ll have trouble spotting him if he’s nearby.”
“That could be a big area, sir...” Tallow sounded rather dubious.
“I don’t give a damn,” the old mage’s blue eyes hardened for a moment. “Tell her I don’t expect her back without him, or proof that she won’t find him in this world,” he looked away for a moment, a shadow crossing his face.
Tallow blinked, a little taken aback by the unexpected harshness in her teacher’s voice. “Yes, sir...” she murmured.
“Now, are we all packed?” his voice and expression softened to their usual gentleness.
“Yes, sir. She’s all ready.” She held the mare’s reins in one hand as the old man climbed into the saddle with surprising strength and swiftness.
“Now remember,” the old mage said, looking down at his apprentice. “Contact me as soon as they get here.” Tallow nodded. “And if anything happens that worries you, or you don’t know how to deal with, don’t be afraid to contact someone and ask. I’ve let the Order know that you’re on your own here for a while, nobody will mind.”
“Thank you, sir,” she smiled at his thoughtfulness. “Although I hope nothing like that will happen.”
“Of course. I have no doubt that you can handle anything that is likely to come up, but I sense that unusual times may be approaching, so it seems best to be ready.”
“Yes, sir. Good luck.”
“And to you.” With a gentle flick of the reins, the old man urged the mare into a slow walk forwards towards the courtyard gates, Tallow jogging ahead to open them. As she swung the iron gates closed again, and locked them, she waved to the retreating figure as the old mage cantered down the road.
“Well,” she said aloud to the courtyard, her eyes roaming over the few trees within, and the stone buildings. “I guess it’s just you and me for a little while.” She glanced at the object he had given her. “And I hope this isn’t too heavy for Woodward...” Frowning, she made her way back inside.