Aleckster felt a foreboding chill slither down his spine as Ryon led them deeper into the woods. Thorny overgrowth obstructed their path, and gnarled, twisted trees snaked upward, forming a canopy dangling with vines. The locals in Oakheart referred to this part of the forest as the Snarl. Some superstitious folk called it cursed. Haunted even.
We’re going to meet a woods witch after all, Aleckster reasoned.
He and Ryon walked in front while Malyn held Jessa’s hand and walked with her a few paces behind. Aleckster knew hacking at tree limbs would dull the blade faster than anything, but remembered his father telling him it was the first of many swords to come. Drawing it with his left hand, he hammered and slashed, knocking dry foliage to the side.
“You’re a lefty,” Ryon observed.
“You’ve known me my entire life and you’re only now privy to this?” Aleckster goaded.
“It wasn’t relevant until now. All the Spellblades are left-handed, you know.”
“What’s a Spellblade?” Malyn called from behind.
“Spellblades fight with a binding blade,” Jessa answered from a few feet behind them. “They come from a guild called the Arcane Order across the ocean.”
Ryon stopped dead in his tracks and looked at Jessa in disbelief.
“How do you know that?
“Donovan told me,” Jessa shot back.
“See,” Aleckster interjected. “Jessa knows a lot about magic.”
“But how?” Ryon asked. “And why? You can’t even do magic.”
Jessa shrugged and threw her free hand up for a moment.
“I like it. It’s fun to watch.”
Ryon shook his head. Perhaps in disdain, perhaps in humility, Aleckster couldn’t quite tell, but once Jessa started talked with Ryon about the things she learned, he dropped back to walk alongside her. Aleckster tuned their talking out, escaping into the minds of the wolves. To his delight, he discovered Gemma not far off. She had started stalking them from the shadows after catching their scent a few miles back.
The wolf heard his call. She knew their whereabouts because of the strange connection to Aleckster. She quickened her pace, weaving through the thicket to intersect them. Aleckster grinned ear-to-ear at the thought of Ryon and Jessa meeting his wolf for the first time. Due to arrive in a few minutes, Aleckster pondered what to instigate. Should he have her emerge from the woods, snarling and snapping? No. That would traumatize his already grief-stricken sister.
“What are you smiling about?”
Aleckster turned to see Malyn had joined him at the front. She jutted her head back at the other two and then rolled her eyes, obviously bored with their talk of the arcane artes.
“Don’t ruin the surprise,” Aleckster said in a low tone, “but Gemma will be joining us soon.”
“And when she gets here, are you going to tell us what’s going on?” Malyn asked.
“I made a promise,” Aleckster replied. “I intend to keep it.”
That put a stop to the discussion. The path grew into a tangle so terrible Aleckster decided to call the travel to a halt. Under the pretense of trying to find better way, he paced back and forth as Ryon and Jessa caught up to them. Engaged in their conversation, they stopped and stood still, glancing in Aleckster’s direction to see if he’d yet cleared a path, neither one the wiser to the wolf who walked up the path behind them.
Gemma sauntered forward at a slow and silent pace. Malyn caught sight of her before the others. Jessa gasped and took a step back. Ryon thrust his arm in front of her as if to protect her from harm.
“Everyone be calm,” Ryon warned. “I think there’s only one of them.”
“She’s alone,” Aleckster replied with a knowing smile. He made sure to walk between Ryon and Jessa as he reached for Gemma’s head. She nodded up to his open hand and let him pet her. Kneeling, he brushed away some of the thorns stuck to her fur. Malyn pushed past the other two to come to the she-wolf.
“It’s okay, Jessa” Malyn assured. “She’s friendly. Aleckster named her Gemma after your Ma.”
“Aleckster,” Ryon hissed. “Are you crazy? That’s a wild animal. Get away from her before she bites you.”
“She won’t bite,” Aleckster promised.
“How do you know?” Ryon demanded.
“Because I can hear her thoughts, and she can hear mine. She likes me and she listens to what I tell her.”
That sent all three of them to shifting disbelief. Rather than wait for them to respond, Aleckster took the opportunity to tell his story. He began with the day Aaron Smithson and his posse chased him into the Forest of the Elves, talking them all through his experience in the forest. His emotions got the better of him when he spoke of the wolf attack. He fought through his tears and continued explaining his connection to wolves in detail. The tale took a long time telling with Jessa interrupting to demand answers to the questions roiling in her brain. Ryon wanted to know more about the hunt.
“Just let me tell the whole thing,” Aleckster complained. “You can ask questions when I’m done.”
They complied, and he finished. It felt good, like a weight lifted from his shoulders. Keeping the secret so long left him feeling isolated, and now his little sister and two closest friends knew. A part of him chafed when none of them offered sympathy. Malyn and Jessa spoke of his connection to the wolves like a marvel or wonder to be envied.
“You’re so fortunate,” Ryon said with a biting tone.
“Lucky?” Aleckster shot back. “I don’t feel that way. I was ripped to pieces by wolves and put back together by an elf maid’s song. Now, I can see and taste and smell and feel wolves for miles. I don’t dream my own dreams; I dream their dreams. Especially if the blue moon is full.”
“The moon?” Ryon asked.
“It’s hard to explain, and each moon affects me differently,” Aleckster explained. “When the blue moon is full, my connection to them intensifies. I can’t think my own thoughts. It’s maddening. When the red moon is full, that’s when my temper gets the best of me. I’m angry all the time and I can’t help it.”
“And the white moon?” Ryon pressed.
“The white moon is the worst; it makes me sleepwalk. I wake up outside with no memory of how I got there. It’s scary.”
Ryon took his gaze to the treetops with a frown. The sun was setting. They wasted the entire day in talking. Now, they would never make it before nightfall, and they had come too far to turn back.
“It’s getting dark,” Malyn piped up.
“I noticed,” Aleckster replied. “If we’re not back tomorrow morning, Father will send a search party and we’ll be in trouble.”
“We can stay at Maverick’s,” Ryon offered.
“The woods witch,” Ryon said. “His name is Maverick.”
“We’re not staying in the house of a woods witch,” Aleckster insisted. “Wait. Have you done that before?”
“Yeah,” Ryon confessed. “Maverick was teaching me. He’ll understand. He’ll be happy for me, and he’ll definitely want his book back. You’ll like him. He brews tea and makes cookies from acorns. Besides, it’s just a ways further; we’re almost there.”
“No,” Aleckster maintained. “We will go, you will return his book, thank him for loaning it to you. And then we’re going home.”
“If you say so,” Ryon said. “You’ll see when we meet him.”
Aleckster turned once again towards the brambles, and slashed with his sword. Gemma let out a soft growl and ran off into the woods to sniff something out of boredom.
She will keep us safe.
It took another hour and night fell before they found the little cottage. The trees overhead grew together in such a thick canopy so that only a few slivers of moonlight pierced through from the sky. These slivers illuminated a mossy stone walkway to the door of the house. It was nicer and bigger than Aleckster expected. As they drew closer, he found it to be made of clay bricks.
Through the windows, illuminated by candlelight, the silhouette of a person walking about caught his eye. Aleckster reached out with his mind for Gemma. Just as he commanded her, she stayed hidden in the surrounding woods, her eyes fixed upon the cottage.
Good girl. Stick around in case I need you.
Ryon let out a heavy sigh as he reached up to the brass knocker on the splintery wood door. He gave five monotonous knocks and then took a step back. Floorboards creaked from within the house as footfalls made their way to the other side of the door. A fat hairy bald man in a gray cotton tunic answered the door. The smell of aromatic spices and roasted meat poured out of the house, making Aleckster’s mouth water and his stomach groan.
“Ryon!” the man exclaimed. He held a brass candlestick with three candles in his hand to illuminate the rest of them with firelight. “This is a surprise. You brought such pretty friends with you.”
“These are my friends, Malyn, Aleckster, and Jessa. Everyone, this is Maverick.”
“I’ve got dinner prepared. Come on in.”
“We can’t stay,” Aleckster said. “Ryon, give him the book so we can be on our way.”
With a huff of frustration, his friend complied. He reached into his shoulder bag and handed the book back to Maverick who took it with a puzzled look upon his face.
“It was a gift to help you learn.”
“That’s what I’ve come to tell you,” Ryon replied. “I’m going to Faewater to learn from the Circle.”
“You what?” Maverick exclaimed. “Ryon that’s wonderful news! Congratulations!”
His expression turned mournful for a moment.
“What’s wrong?” Ryon asked.
“I’m so happy for you,” Maverick replied. “I’m going to miss you very much when you go. You’ve become a very special friend to me.”
He reached out to give Ryon a hug, holding him close and lingering in his embrace. “Won’t you and your friends come in and join me for dinner? I made a stew and I made plenty.”
“Aleckster, can we?” Ryon asked.
Aleckster’s gut told him to stick to his decision, but his aching feet and empty belly got the better of him, and he relented.
“Just for dinner. We have to go home after that.”
Maverick held the door while they crossed the threshold one by one, Aleckster bringing up the rear. He made sure to rest his hand on the hilt of his sword. The man seemed to take no notice, and offered only a polite smile until he closed the door and latched it behind them.
“This way,” he motioned.
The inside was humble, but tidy. All one big room, there was a fireplace, several cushioned chairs, and table with a rough spun rug underneath. Against the wall, Aleckster spied a small rickety table with two matching chairs, several bookshelves, and a small desk as well. One of the shelves held the intact skeletons of animals on stands in various poses. He kept spiders and snakes in glass tanks under shelves lined with jars of what seemed to be dead remains.
“What are those for?” Aleckster pointed.
“We can learn a lot from the creatures of this world,” Maverick said. “Come here and let me show you.”
Neither of the girls budged, but Aleckster followed the man to the small aquarium filled with webs like a fog.
“These spiders come from the Forest of the Elves,” he explained. “The stands of their webs are so strong it’s astounding. Here.”
He reached for a pair of scissors, grabbed the single strand of a web between the blades. With effort that could have only been feigned, he managed to slice through.
“You try,” Maverick offered. Aleckster made sure none of the spiders crawled near the top before he took the scissors. He saw the severed piece dangling where Maverick had cut and tried to remove it. To his surprise, snipping through the strand proved more difficult than he anticipated. After a dozen relentless squeezes, the strand gave way to the sharpness of the blade.
“What do you do with it?” Aleckster asked.
From within a wooden draw in the desk, Maverick pulled out a thin coil of woven thread. He let some slack out and handed it to Aleckster. To the touch, it felt smoother than silk. A thousand-thousand strands spun together, and as expected, when Aleckster tried to break it, the thread did not yield.
“You can’t break it,” Maverick assured. “Not with a scissors anyhow. It’s very durable, and stronger than iron chains.”
“And stretchy. Could you string a bow with it?” Aleckster wondered aloud.
“Perhaps not with a gauge this big, but it might serve for one thinner. Go take a seat and I’ll bring you some stew.”
Still uneasy, Aleckster made his way to the common area with the others. He and Malyn sat together on one couch and Jessa chose the floor, elbows leaning on the table. Ryon took a seat next to her, leaving the large rocker for Maverick.
Their host made quick work of delivering them all a bowl of stew and a spoon. It tasted far better than Aleckster expected. Hearty, full of hunks of beef, potatoes, carrots, onions, and celery, the soup filled his empty belly. Maverick seated himself in the rocker and helped himself to a spoonful as well.
“Ryon, how did you manage to pay the tuition for the Circle?”
“I found a sponsor,” he replied, looking to Aleckster.
“You’re lucky they didn’t send the clerics after you, boy,” Maverick said, his tone stern. “You didn’t tell them about our little secret did you?”
Ryon shook his head.
“That’s a good lad,” Maverick said.
“You’re breaking the law, you know,” Aleckster chimed in. “You can’t practice magic outside the Circle.”
“I used to be in the Circle,” Maverick explained. “Like your friend Ryon here, I do not come from a wealthy family. I couldn’t afford more than a few years—so I was cast out.”
“You’re supposed to let them make you meek,” Aleckster pressed.
“If you had a gift that made you special would you want them to take that away from you just because you couldn’t pay their price?”
Aleckster thought about it. No. Much as his magical connection to the wolves seemed a burden to bear, it felt as much a part of him as his arms and legs. He found community and comfort within the pack. He wouldn’t let some cleric take that away.
“No,” he said at last. “I understand it, but Ryon is my friend and I’m not going to let that happen to him.”
“And who are you that you can afford so high a price?” Maverick asked. “Your father must be a wealthy man.”
“My father is Terrance Balewyn, Lord of the Eastlands.”
Maverick’s eyebrows went wide with surprise. He shifted in his chair and made troubled faces.
“And does your father know you’re here?”
“We didn’t tell anybody we was coming,” Jessa said. “Aleckster said we had to bring the book back and tell no one so Ryon didn’t get in trouble.”
“That’s the last thing we want is trouble,” Maverick said.
“If you’re worried we are going tell anyone about your secret cottage, you needn’t worry,” Aleckster said. “I know you meant well in giving him the book, but if he had been caught with it…”
“Aleckster, please,” Ryon interjected. “He doesn’t need you to tell him.”
“My lord, if I may,” Maverick said, directing his gaze at Aleckster. “I’m well aware of the consequences of being caught practicing magic outside the Circle. Do I need to pack my bags and flee? Are you going to send your father’s soldiers after me?”
Ryon’s eyes went wide and he gave Aleckster a wounded expression.
“No,” he protested. “No you can’t do that, please! Maverick was only trying to help. No one has to know. He’s not hurting anyone out here.”
Aleckster didn’t trust Maverick at all. Whether his intentions were innocent or nefarious concerned him less than knowing the consequences of his crime. He, a man grown, gave a child a book of spells and private lessons knowing what would happen should the wrong people find out.
A man who takes risks with his life and with that of others is not a man you can trust.
His father’s words. Aleckster remembered him saying them to Charlie on his last name day. Charlie wanted to go on a hunt with his friends, and insisted Darren Woods accompany him. Darren Woods was a foolhardy rogue who gambled and started fights in every tavern in Wolf Haven. One time he got in a fight with a bartender and stabbed him with his knife. Charlie had to intervene. Father forbade Darren go, and a week later they found out he raped and kidnaped some farmer’s daughter. He left her for dead in the woods and escaped, never to show his face around Wolf Haven again.
That’s exactly what Maverick had done: risk his life and Ryon’s, but Aleckster kept this revelation to himself.
“None of that will be necessary,” Aleckster decided. “Look, you can stay here in your cottage in the middle of the Snarl; I don’t care. I’m not going to say anything to my Father or my uncle. But if I hear word of you giving anyone else a book of spells they ought not to have you will leave me no choice.”
Maverick nodded his head, but did not seem pleased with Aleckster’s words.
“I understand, and you have my word.”
A long, uncomfortable silence passed, and they continued to eat their meal in silence. Aleckster kept trying to draw Ryon’s eye, but his friend refused to meet his gaze and wore a scowl.
He’ll thank me someday. He’s smarter than me in so many ways, but not when it comes to things like this.
“Let me take your bowls if you’re finished,” Maverick announced.
He went around the room and collected their bowls and spoons to take to the kitchen. He dropped them into a wash basin and left them. Retrieving a padded glove from the wall, he took a kettle and positioned it over the fire. While the water heated, he pulled five cups from the cupboard and started mixing some herbs and spices with a mortar and pestle.
“I don’t have any sugar or cream, but I do have some honey,” Maverick called out.
“Ryon told us that you make cookies from acorns,” Malyn said.
“I do,” Maverick replied. “I’m sad to say I don’t have any, but you’ll like the tea, I promise. You’ll never forget it.”
When the kettle started to whistle, Maverick left the cups and herbs on his counter, returned the glove to his hand, and proceeded to make the tea. With no tray, he carried them two at a time and handed one cup to each of them in turn before sitting down in the rocker to take a sip of his own.
“It’s a new blend,” he said. “Tell me how you like it.”
Aleckster blew across the surface of the light brown liquid to clear the steam, and took a careful sip from the clay mug. His mother enjoyed tea blends traded from the country of Rhiion, and preferred to drink it in the morning over coffee. Maverick had put so much honey in it, Aleckster was hard pressed to determine any flavors save for sweet.
“Mmm!” Jessa exclaimed. “It’s so good. Mother used sugar in her tea but I like honey better.”
Aleckster smiled. Where he and his mother added a single spoonful to their mug, she took care to dissolve six and sometimes seven. Fond of anything sweet, it was no wonder she enjoyed it so well. Aleckster took a few more sips out of politeness. After a few minutes, his head felt groggy and his body tired.
“I feel funny,” Jessa said.
Aleckster opened his mouth to say something, but a mumbled mess came out instead. Words, sentences, and logical thought seem to spin away from as the world around him slowed down. Malyn let out a soft moan as she dropped the tea and saucer onto the floor. Her eyes fell like a curtain as her head lulled to her chest.
“You…” he said to Maverick. “I…what…”
Aleckster willed himself to stand, reaching for the sword at his belt, but crashed to the floor, the light around his eyes fading. Panic set in as Maverick rose from his rocker and chuckled. Ryon let out a soft whimper, and that was the last thing Aleckster remembered before drifting to sleep.