I stared at the bright orange and purple sky gazing east; the hairs rising on the back of my neck as thundering grey-green clouds from the south begin to crowd the sky. The wind is rustling the leaves and branches in the trees above me and the kids are bleating and growing a little more anxious. I’ll hear Da’s Bell presently, as he always rings it around sunset to call me to eve-meal. Plenty of times have I asked him why he still rings it day after day as I know when to come, but he just says the bell is an important part of our life.
When younger, he made a game of it, saying we have our own secret code with the bell. Da had always been fun like that. At seven-year, the age I claimed at that time, he’d say secrets are a Kings goat’s whiskers, and he’d rub his chin and make a long face. I had no idea what that could mean, but it made me laugh and want to keep special secrets with him. And it made me want to rub our goat’s whiskers, which I do any chance I get.
My mind’s eye shone on the memory clear as his bell, as I could hear even now Da saying back then…
“Arias, if I ring the bell but once, it’s time to head in for eve-meal,” he’d say. “Finish what yer up to and come home. Wash yerself up at the well and come in to the table… If it tolls twice, it means we have guests. Come on straight away, wash up and be on yer best behavior.”
And finally, Da woud say, “If I ring the bell three times... Now listen to me, Arias, ‘cause this is the most important bell tollin’ part of the secret. If I ring the bell three times, no matter where ye be, run like a deer to the Frost-Cellar and hide down below, and stay there ‘til I come and get ye. When I come get ye, ye’ll know it’s me by my speaking the pass-word.”
“The pass-word? What’s the pass-word Da?"
Why, it would be Pickles, o’course!” And his face brightened noticeably at my young, rather confused face.
“And that’s the special secret of the bell, Arias. It’s our secret alone. Not for friends, not for nobody but us, do ye understand?”
“Da?” I had asked. “I like our secret code with the bell, but I don’t get why I should hide in the Frost Cellar if I hear three bells?”
This giant of a man just stood, looming over me with sparkling eyes like he always did and shaking his finger, then drawing his thumb back to pointing at his chest. “That’s my secret, lad. I’ll not tell ye why till I come to get ye from the Frost-Cellar.”
He wouldn’t say any more about the three bells, no matter how many times I’d ask and so it stuck with me. But when he would a’times mention it to me. I’d say,
“Da, I’m seven... Or, I’m eight... ’course I remember. It’s our secret Da, I wouldn’t forget our secret or our secret password – pickles!” And I’d laugh, having learned since that pickles were his most favorite treat.
Now well past my sixteen-year-end, Da still rang the bell, once for eve-meal and twice for when Moor, or Widow Grayce comes by. But he’s never rung three times, so I’d never learned his secret about that. But nobody ‘cept Da would ever find me if I hid in the Frost-Cellar, ’cause the Frost-Cellar is the other real secret of ours. Nobody knows about the Frost-Cellar and to good reason, Da explained.
My thoughts spill back to the present for a moment as the sky rumbled a little bit more. The kids scampered about me, but Bane keeps them close. Sitting atop my rock, we were not too far from where I’d found the kids. And though a ways away from the cottage, I’d hear Da’s Bell as it sounded across the vale. We were pretty much alone out here living about half a morn’s ride from the nearest towne that folk call Middenvale. Alone, ‘cept for Widow Grayce who lived just a small piece down the road towards towne. She said she liked it out here in the quiets, with forest and stream nearby. And she was not your typical woman in any case. She could take down a deer at fifty paces with a bow. Easy and sure as the wind.
I’d seen her do it one day near the edge of the forest. Afterwards, she saw me watching her from my stone perch and just waved. I wondered how she could see me here, tucked past the edge of the forest inside the tree line at such a distance. A different kind of woman than the ladies in towne; sure certain. She would wear tanned-hide britches as well when she hunted. All the women in towne wear linen skirts and dresses of a sort. Da and her get on really well, too. So, it’s not bad having a neighbor like Grayce.
About the Frost-Cellar. See, Da and I didn’t need much from towne most fortnights, for life as such. But Da would visit people in towne, drink ale at the Inn’s tavern, and he always liked to be of help to people. That being so, we went into towne on a regular basis. And the Frost-Cellar played a part in that. It had some special properties that were quite useful for trading in towne. And only Da and I knew where it lay hidden. And hidden it surely was. Da first took me there as a seven-year, leaving me sweating and exhausted from a trek that took us crisscrossing game trails that only Da could follow. Concealed in plain sight up in the hills, just a small piece off the main fur trader’s trail, you wouldn’t easily find it. To peer straight at it with the eyes of a falcon you still wouldn’t see the fold in the stone rock wall. Still the entrance opened as wide as Da and almost as tall. It lay disguised, sideways on a tall, sheer rock face of a hill.
When we went in that first time, the cold turned my hike-sweaty skin near to ice. A chilly cloud formed as I breathed out and Da laughed aloud to see the wonder on my face. Da laid a torch he had pulled down from a bracket on the wall at the entrance. Already soaked with lantern oil, the flick of his flint on his blade and he sparked a flame to the torch. We’d entered a cavernous room where Da had stacked burlap bags of vegetables from our gardens and slaughtered game meat and beef and pork hung on great hooks about us. I stood in wonder surveying the cave that lay well hidden in plain sight.
Da explained that the cool kept the meats and vegetables near fresh so we could eat them well into the winter. Stocking the Frost-Cellar with Da became a regular chore after that. We took little chance and were always ever so vigilant to see that nobody ever followed us to the Frost-Cellar. Though hidden, it wasn’t far from the trader’s trail and they always were a curious sort. This way it remained a secret. But there was something even more special about the Frost-Cellar. Da led me past the shelves and hanging meats and barrels to the back wall, into the shadows and deeper still into the chill. Again, akin to the outer entrance, there is an unseen fold in the rock wall and Da led me around it.
There appeared afore us a stair hewn into the rock and winding down. Making our way downward, after about five or six steps we came to a landing with a few barrels sitting in an alcove. The stair, here, turned round-about and back and we descended a few steps more. Of a sudden, the sound of trickling water met my ears. Still further down, we entered another cavern. The cold here chilled deep, like the coldest winter winds slapping me in the face, and contrary to what one would think, there was light in this room.
Two bored holes in the ceiling, letting sunlight in from far above. Along one wall ran a steady stream of ice-cold water from a hole about Da’s height in that wall. The water trickled down into a stone trough that stood about knee-high and ran along a side wall. I ran my fingers through a crystal clear and icy water. From the trough, the stream escaped out into another hole where the wall met an all stone floor and disappeared to places unknown. Da put the torch in a bracket in the stairwell. The sunlight kept the room well-lit, streaming from the holes in the ceiling above. My voice echoed over and over as I finally spoke and Da laughed heartily to my Oohs and Ahhs of the echoing sound. It made me laugh. This, of course, made the echoing that much more extreme and it was too hard for a seven-year-ender to settle down, so we laughed yet more, for just the fun of it, as my breath rose in a billowing frost. Chilly bumps raced up my arms.
Alas, that cold brought me shivering back to my senses. I settled to a point to where Da could explain this wonder. He couldn’t explain the cold exactly, but to say an ancient mægic must be involved. This made my eyes widen and pull in a cold breath ’cause some of Da’s tales were about ancient mægics. Those were the tales that held a seven-year-end captive. He did, however, tell me why the cold was very useful to us.
“Do you see, the boxes sunk in the stone floor about you?” And I did. There were maybe a dozen large holes placed around the room, some with what appeared to be oaken boxes laid within the holes and were filled with winter ice. And yet the heat of summer lay just outside
“Da! This is where you get the ice we take on down into towne and to the Inn.” Another of Da’s secrets revealed!
As far back as I can recall, four times in a fortnight, Da would wake me afore dawn, load me on the bench on our wagon and take me into towne. The wagon always full with covered bundles in the back, wrapped in stiff leather. The large box shaped bundles were cold to the touch. After the long ride into towne, Da would pull around back of the Inn, unwrap what turned out to be huge blocks of ice, and he would use great metal tongs to pick up the ice blocks and carry them down into the cellar under the Inn. Then we’d go up into the kitchens above and eat a grand morn-meal prepared special by Mãam Bergierre, as the Innkeeper thanked Da. He’d always slap down a few coin in front of Da, as well. Master Bergierre would often say Da was the reason the Inn was always so popular with folk in summer. Da would say Mãam Bergierre’s cooking had more to do with it. Mãam Bergierre would of course hear this and give him back a wide smile and we always got the biggest portions on our plates.
The memory fell away as flashes of a thundering sky-bolts lit up the entire and ever darkening-grey sky as even more storm clouds rolled over the setting sun to the west. As a gust of wind threatened to blow me from my perch on my rock, the kids bleated the louder for it and even young Bane howled. I love a good storm.
As if on cue, Da’s Bell rang a clear, crisp toll across the valley. Picking up the kids, who were shaking now, I snuggled each under an arm and slid from my rock on sure feet, landing on the forest floor in a swirl of autumns windblown leaves. Starting home at a trot, Bane followed, nipping at my heels. I made it my personal game to arrive home afore the sky opened up and soaked me to the bone. I am quick, always have been. Da always said I moved as fast and silent as a deer chased by a mountain cat.
Past sixteen-year-end now, and mostly past my growth spurt, I remained more than a head shorter than Da still and nowhere near as large. My defining characteristics were probably my eyes. They were a sparkling gold circling around a silver gray that sometimes appears emerald or even lavender in the right light. There is never a person that does not glance twice at them whenever I first make eye contact. My hair, a mousey brown, has unruly streaks of blond that won’t be tamed. I let it grow long as it hides one of my more embarrassing features. Da insisted hiding them unwarranted, as I should take pride in all that I am, but the unusual pointed curl to my upper ears did nothing for my ego. When somebody would look into my eyes and note their unusual color, it would a’times be followed by an exclamation of awe. But should they notice my ears, I most often heard a curt ‘Oh’. Though fairly tall to my peers, I would be oft described as wiry with knotted muscles to Da’s huge muscled bulk. My hands and my fingers unusually long. In spite of my height. Where Da had to duck under every door lintel, I was a hand short of reaching them. Da stood as wide as an ox and as strong as one as well. He had arms thicker than my legs and legs of a size to match no other. I am strong from chore and work about the homestead and Da’s friend Moor named me lithe and quick. He insisted this would serve me better than being a mountain of a man like Da. I guess I took after my mœther’s bloodline.
On days that Da would leave me to my own doings, which happened more often as I grew older, I sometimes ran the entire day, hardly stopping at all, traveling through the forest up into the high hills surrounding our homestead and exploring the countryside. I would chase deer and outrun bear and climb rock outcroppings and run all the way home as well. When Da would ask about my day, I’d tell him the fish were jumping clear out of the water at Moon Lake. His face in wonder, he’d admit a long hard two day’s trek to the lake for him when pushed hard. I’d reached it and returned in a day hardly winded.
Reaching the homestead just as the clouds were beginning to release their torrents of stinging rain, I dropped the kids in the barn and quickly, washing up at the pump, made my way to the cottage porch and door afore the downpour. The door squeaked on worn hinges as I entered, Lilit and Jillys’ heads popping up from their cozy blanket in the cottage corner.
Stew with mutton from the towne butcher made the eve-meal this night. A treat because Da didn’t keep sheep, and we didn’t have it regularly. With carrots and tubers and onions in thick gravy, the smells wafting about the cottage made my mouth near to drooling, he served it in a bread trencher. The bread fresh baked by Da in his homemade stone oven. Hot, hot! It sure certain is delicious and eases the hunger. Having not eaten since morn-meal, and that only a rasher of bacon and a tater slathered in cheese and butter, I’d grown hungry during the hunt for the lost kids. I told him where I’d finally found them. Not too far from my rock perch, they were getting trouble from a large, black rock snake. ‘Twas as long as my leg.
“Bane just snagged that snake up back of its head and with a quick whip in his jaws, he put an end to the threat and made lunch of it,” gesturing with my hands mimicking the wolf pup’s actions.
“He’s a wild and growing pup,” Da’s eyebrow rose, “and I still wonder about him.”
What Da meant was that Bane sure certain was no ordinary dog. Being, Da said when we found him, not a dog pup nor coyote nor any type of dingo at all. He was, in fact, a wolf.
When we found him a fortnight back, Da had peered, head slowly nodding side-a-side into Bane’s copper and gold speckled eyes as he lay weak and caught in a trader’s metal coon trap staked to the ground.
“If I wasn’t sure they was gone extinct from this world, I’d say he was a Mountain Dread pup.”
As he had approached the pup to pull the trap open, the young wolf rose up on three legs, bared its teeth, raised his hackles and stared down Da, daring him to come near at his own peril.
Now, this was completely foreign to me, as I’d never seen any animal react this way to Da. You see, Da is known as the animal whisperer to all in and around Middenvale. People brought their wild mares and oxen and dogs to Da for taming and training. That being some of what he did and most known for in our parts. I’d seen Da stare down a young grizzly or a mountain cat and they’d turn and sulk away. He’d have a stallion trained in a fortnight when its owner couldn’t even approach it afore he started. Animals just naturally took to Da and he to them. He had an empathy for all creatures and they just naturally trusted him.
When the pup reacted this way to Da, he’d said,
“I’ll most like need to put him down, Arias, I’ll not be able to help him even if I get him free from the trap.”
“Da,” I insisted, “there has to be another way!”
Determined it not to be so, I approached the wolf pup myself.
Approaching slowly, I kept my eyes still gazing deep into his and, of a sudden, as if by mægic, the pup’s growl ceased. His lips closed over his teeth and his tail raised in response to my approach. Reaching out, I slowly offered my hand, palm down, as Da had taught me. The pup sniffed, then licked my fingers. Next, I rubbed and scratched behind his ear. He responded with a contented growl deep in his throat. Da stared incredulous at this, but proceeded to pull the trap jaws apart and remove the pup’s damaged leg as I ministered to his ears and he wiggled under my scratching hand.
“I’ll be damned,” whispered Da. “He certainly can’t be a Mountain Dread after all.”
While I held the pup, Da wrapped his damaged leg and then made a sling for me to carry him in. He lifted his muzzle up to lick the underside of my chin. I would need to carry him as he would not abide Da getting close. I cupped my hand and Da poured some water into it and the pup eagerly lapped it up. He shortly settled down into the sling Da had fashioned for him and fell asleep against my chest, comforted by my heartbeat, Da said.
“I’ve never seen a creature act like he did to you, Da.” I said quizzically.
Da just chuckled and said “Mayhaps he thought me the trapper who set the trap. And I’ve never seen a creature of the wild react in such a way as that pup did to ye, lad. It’s a wolf and a wild untamed creature of this here forest. We will repair its hindquarters and be able to set him free again in a fortnight’s time. Though he be just a pup, he’s got some meat on his bones and should be able to fend for himself when his leg is whole again.”
And so, we headed back to the cottage with the wolf pup in a sling and sound asleep.
“So, what is a Mountain Dread, Da? And why are they all extinct?” I queried on our trip back.
“’Twas a story my Da told me, as a younger, and he’d tell me tales like I do ye,” his voice quiet and pensive as he glanced again at the pup in its sling at my chest.
Though I knew most could be naught but tall tales, I’d always loved to hear Da’s stories of soldiers’ adventures in the world. They were full of action and travels and sometimes battles. Da always had a moral or truth to his tales. He’d tell them many eves sitting at the hearth fire and I always loved hearing the stories. Hearing that his Da did the same for him just made a kind of sense. As we continued our trek back to the cottage, Da continued,
“My Da told me many tales about creatures as he knew I had a love for that sort of story. He once told me a tale of a fierce wolf that lived as a lone traveling creature, not like your typical wolf, moving in packs like a gray or a timber.”
I checked on the young wolf pup who appeared now to be faring well. He even wagged his tail a bit.
“This wolf,” Da said, “stood as tall as a grown man’s chest and was no animals equal, not even a full-grown grizzly because it was so fierce a predator. So much so that a great King of old sent hunters and soldiers abroad into the mountains that were its natural habitat to wipe it from this world. The pelts from this wolf were made to be the most desired form of garment for lords and the like. In the years that followed, they were hunted ‘til no more could be found.”
I found this a deeply disturbing thing and told Da so. He nodded in agreement.
“But why would you say this pup could be such an animal?” I queried, glancing at it again.
“Because of the eyes, ya see,” Da explained. “Da said the Dread had fierce eyes. Not like wolves’ eyes at all. In fact, more like a cats. Eyes of copper speckled in gold, and I’ve never seen their like in any other creature, but the pup has ‘em, just as my Da described. The tale went that the wolf’s hide did not have the value unless accompanied by the creature’s eyes. And then the hide would fetch twenty gold pieces. A fortune for a hunter or trapper.”
Da said that as many or more hunters and trappers paid a higher price. Their life, with no gold in return. ‘Cause the Dread is a keen hunter as well, and the hunter, a’times, became the hunted.
We made our way back to the cottage and Da worked his healing mægic on the pup’s hindquarters and he slept that first night at the foot of my cot. I fed the pup and he followed me around tight to my leg with a limp like a domestic dog pup and much to the amazement of Da. After a ha’fortnight, the pup’s leg being well on the mend and he still followed me about as I did my chores around the homestead. Da would watch close as he worried we’d come up short a chicken or goat if he didn’t. But the pup, though he stared intently at the farm animals, never harmed them. To be fair, the animals would not stay long around me anyway with the young wolf nearby.
“Pup, you are the bane of the barn and pasture here abouts, I’d say. And Da is mighty wary.”
I found myself calling him Bane after a time.
But when I went out at the end of the day to round up the livestock to the barn, the pup somehow realized what I was about and started herding the creatures back and to me. Goats and cows alike moved swiftly home to the barn under Bane’s direction, making the chore so much easier on me. At the end of the day, Da would throw a piece of chicken or some fatty bacon to the pup and he’d take it and drag it a distance away and dine on it.
After eve-meal one night, Da said time had come to take the pup (I’d named him but didn’t tell Da, only using the name when not around him) and release him back into the forest. Bane had become familiar with Da by now and no longer growled in his presence, but still ever calm only around me. Da just shook his head and wondered at this.
So, on the morrow’s morn, a fortnight and seven after saving Bane from the trap, we headed out for a long trek towards the distant mountains. We had our packs and Da his bow and we expected to be gone a while.
We hiked for three suns with Bane following me, the wolf becoming ever more interested in the scents and the creatures of the forest. We soon realized we had no need to feed him anymore as he would wander off, track a rabbit or other small creature of the forest and find his own meals. Come the fourth day, we had made the foothills of the western range of the Shadow Mountains. Bane clearly felt very much at home here. As I woke, next morn, I noted that he was on full alert as he stared into the dim, morn lit forest about us. Da and I observed him in wonder for his steely intent on something in the distance. His ears went on alert and with a twist of his head he straightened and just headed out after some prey, deemed most important to him.
As soon as Bane left, Da started breaking down the camp.
“What Da, no morn-meal?”
“No Arias, yer pup is very intent on tracking some prey just now. It would be a very good time to head back, mayhaps at a good clip. That pup has taken to ye in a strong way, and very much beyond his native instincts.”
“And I him. But you are right, Da. This is his natural home. I will surely miss him, though you have the right of it. Let’s be off then,” resigned to the reality, I helped Da break camp.
Da paused and peered deep into my eyes. I’m sure he knew that I had indeed formed an unnatural attachment to the wolf pup.
We set off after making our packs, making good time back towards the cottage, but my thoughts were on Bane the whole trip.
As we arrived home from our trip returning Bane to the wild, we noted Grayce just heading out from the homestead. She had milked the cows and tended the livestock for us these past few days.
“Grayce, are ye off? Won’t you stay and share some venison stew with yer favorite men?”
“You surely are my favorite men and aye, I’d love to share that game with you.”
Da had shot a large doe on our return trip, his bow ever true. The field dressed deer lay upon Bregoes back.
“You’ve had some strange company about while you’ve been gone.”
Her gaze went to the great oak standing next to the barn. Hundreds of huge ravens filled every branch of the Oak, seeming to stare at us even as we stared back. A shiver raced down my back. Of a sudden they all fluttered about and cawed a moment in masse.
“An omen, mayhaps,” all that Da said to the matter.
I stood a moment and stared in wonder. He and Grayce started off in different directions, each with few words as they began eve-meal preparations.
“Arias, some carrots and onions and tubers from the garden, if you please, young man.” Grayce motioned to the garden.
“I’ll prepare the stock, Ètœn”
“Good then, I’ll prepare the meat,”
With some butchering and seasoning and celery and onion and root vegetables added, Da and Widow Grayce had a stew boiling in no time. Da brought a large skin of homemade ale out of the cottage cellar. The three of us gathered in the shade of a giant saw-tooth oak and sat in chairs Da has crafted for the purpose. We raised a toast. Da allowed me an ale now and then since I’d reached my sixteen-year-end.
With Da and Widow Grayce starting a conversation that has nothing to do with me. I immersed myself in a daydream of Bane. He had caught his young elk somehow, easily four times his height, and with his muzzle around its neck, he shook his head in a vicious jerk and with a snap it is dead under his young paws. In the distance, mayhaps twenty paces away, two full-size wolves regarded him but didn’t approach. A mountain cat cried out from a rock even further out. Bane stared up at the cat and then returned to his prey. It had been a three-day hunt for him. It seemed too real to be a daydream to me.
“Back to the routine tomorrow, Arias, Grayce tells me that our Innkeeper, Master Bergierre is hungry for a wagon full of ice. He’s out and his patrons have taken note.”
We were sitting about our small table in the cottage, now. Bellies full with the scent of the stew still lingering about the kitchen, the sun outside reaching down into the treetops.
“So, back to school then, unless you have another chore for me in towne,” I responded.
“Nay, lad, you’ve been away from yer schoolin’ far too long as it be. It’s more important than any chore I can give ye there,” Da said, standing and stretching, an audible crack emitting from the back of his neck.
“I wonder if I can borrow Arias from you Ètœn. The past two days I’ve noticed some scrambling and squeaking under my floorboards. It sounds like something bigger than a mouse and the cat won’t have anything to do with whatever it is and the space is a bit cramped for one my age.”
“What say you, Arias?” Da asked as he cleared the plates and pot from the table.
“Of course, I can leave out early on morrow’s morn, and you can pick me up on the way into towne.”
Widow Grayce headed out after our early eve-meal and Da returned to the cottage and sat down at the table assessing our ha’fortnight past. Then, though near to worn out, but too early to head off to bed, Da rose and retrieved my leatherworking tools and set them upon the table.
“Idle hands are a dæmon’s tools,” Da proclaimed as he sat back down across from me. Twas one of the many sayings that Da sprang on me from time a’times.
“Arias, you get started back on your pack and I’ll see to the horses.”
The straps over the shoulders on Da’s and my old pack are uncomfortable and would constantly need rearranging on a hike. I’d been working on an idea to add in an entirely new concept for carrying my pack. I sew a panel of elk hide equal to the width of the back of the pack in place behind it. This is of the thicker stock of the mountain Elks skin, and trimmed and attached to the side of the pack that lays against my back and extends up past the top of the pack the length of my torso and shoulders. I cut a large hole in this panel to where my head would slide through and cut the front into a triangular-shape, wider at the shoulders and then to a hands width at my waistline. I then fold this last portion back onto itself, so thus a loop at the bottom was formed. Then from the pack on either side, I sewed a wide belt to pass through the loop in the front and which could be secured at my side. I have been at this for a couple of hours when Da returned and inspected my handiwork.
“Arias lad, you’ve got a life in the Saddlery if you ever decide. Many a time as a soldier, I woulda liked to have been carrying such a pack as this,” he exclaims.
“I have a suggestion or two if you’ll hear it though.”
“Sure Da,” I say with pride as he admired my work.
“I would always consider the advice of an old soldier.” Winking at the man I admire most in life. I would be glad I’d heeded his offered advice, in the suns to come.