I was woken by the wind as it moaned and groaned through the rocky pillars and gaping cavernous mouth. I pulled my weatherworn blanket tighter, thankfully wool was still warm even when it was wet. My silvery white braid was wrapped around like a neck warmer to keep the chill away. My brother’s was too. He hated it, he would always complain about the itch, but we were prone to catching colds and he always suffered if he stopped. Soon we would afford some scarves.
We are twins, exceptionally rare for being part Delphin. He inherited effeminate features for a boy and I inherited angles instead of curves for a girl. I shivered involuntarily and rolled over in the river-sand we slept on to check the fire. I could barely see the embers. Trust Eryno to let the fire go out on a night like this. The wind marked out greatest difference. I was always energised by it, I would breath it through oversized nostrils and close my eyes so I could feel it moving through my robes, over my fawny skin and pulling streamers of hair from my braid. My name, Oommerra, means strong wind. Eryno means storm but the wind makes him nervous and we always have to find shelter. But this wind is cold and even I don’t like the sounds it makes through the hollows and crags around us.
I heard one of the Avi snort, where they were tied was more sheltered and the great birds would have plumage to protect them. Mine was called Turin, being female she was silvery in hue with deep blue-grey face and flight markings. Turuk was her brother and belonged to my brother and was warm beigey-fawn with chocolate markings. The noise woke Eryno and I heard him sit bolt upright in his place on the other side of the fire. I imagined the expression on his face, that blind, dumb stupid look he always wore as he tried to piece together where we were and what we were doing. But the next sounds piqued my curiosity, why was he retrieving his weapon? He lay back down in the same place he was sleeping and curled up under his blanket again. When we were first introduced to our guardian and guide, Master Uros, we had deliberately chosen slightly different magics but I was the one that ended up learning the offensive skills and he the defensive, I learned healing and he learned beastiary but we both did runes and herbs.
Perhaps the snort I had heard wasn’t just a snort. My throwing stars were tucked under my bag within easy reach. I feigned a dream and groaned a little as I turned over to reach for them. As I groaned I heard something move quickly back to the shadows. It was too small to be a person so it must have been one of the wild creatures. I waited for the draft to shift and was rewarded with the unmistakable mustiness of fox. I relaxed a little. It was probably just curious about us and wanted to come and investigate. We had no meat for it to steal and the Avi were far too big for it so it could do no harm.
‘Merra?’ I could barely hear my brother’s whisper.
‘It’s a fox.’ I pre-empted the question.
‘I know. Why is there a fox this far north on the edge of winter?’
Pre-emption failed. I silently scolded myself. ~I should know my brother better than this~. ‘I have no idea. Is this cave its home?’
‘We would have smelt it when we first walked in.’ he continued to whisper.
‘It doesn’t matter. In a few hours it will be light enough for you to fly.’
‘But not enough for you to ride.’ I could hear his smile, he loved teasing me about my vertigo. I think he forgot that my vertigo is mostly his own fault. I fell from an Avi in flight when I was a hip-high.
‘But you can scout while I break camp.’ Perhaps my tone was a bit bitter, he’d hear it.
‘I love how you call this a camp.’ There’s that smile again.
We lay in silence for a while. I was thinking of ways to tease him back during the day. His breathing told me that he wasn’t asleep yet either. Despite our practically dead coals there was enough light to make out some of the caves features. It was once a lava tube. The walls were quite smooth and hard except where tree roots had descended from above. The cave would go deep into the mountain but caves like this always had residents, often drakes this high up, and they were sheltered enough in the entrance for a nights stay. I continued to look over the interior, wondering if it would be worth a quick fossick for gemstones before leaving. If we found a stream nearby we probably could but we wouldn’t waste our water.
‘Merra, I think someone’s coming.’
I turned to look at him but I could only make out a vague form over the fire’s remnants. Yes, if the fire couldn’t illuminate him then something else was providing the light I was seeing by. ‘I see it.’ I responded.
The light source had moved a little and though it was getting slowly brighter it didn’t move north or south so its bearer must be heading straight for the cave. I pulled my throwing stars out from beneath my bag and pulled the string onto my bow beneath the blanket using a protruding rock as a jam.
‘Well use Father’s drinking song.’ I whispered to my brother.
‘Too short, we should use something with more verses.’
‘I plan to confront them.’
‘Go.’ I took a silent breath and began to sing the song in my head. It allowed us to time and co-ordinate our actions without words. We had five or six so far and were working on our sixth set. At the appointed time he rolled noisily from his bed and among some rounded stalegmites. I waited for my que and stood pointedly with my bow drawn.
‘You had better announce yourself, I am not alone here.’ I said firmly in the common tongue as I stared unfocussed into the gloom for a sign of movement.
‘Be at peace.’ A quiet female voice replied. ‘I bring news and advice.’
My eyes searched out the light and as it came into view I recognised it as a household lantern. I lowered my bow and my brother stood slowly from where he was crouched. I still recounted the song just in case as the lantern approached.
It was about 20 strides away when I heard the sounds of movement and realised that the lantern was too close to the ground to be a person. I was confused and gave the signal to my brother to wait for further instructions before acting. I watched in fascinated silence until I recognised that the bearer of the light was a fox vixen with two cubs at foot. Really confused now I was considering raising my bow again.
‘Sorry, I’m coming… I got held up around the bend.’ The voice was about ten metres further back from the light.
‘That’s close enough for the moment, what news do you bring.’
‘I great storm is on its way down the valley from the mountain, this cave will flood with rainwater. I’ve come to offer you hospitality.’
‘How did you know we were here?’ I made sure I sounded older and bigger than I was… more impressive.
‘My grandmother is the town psychic and she told me to come up here and check for travellers. She’s warded off the storm for a few hours to give us time.’
I signalled Eryno. ‘Get the Avi up, I’ll tend to the camp.’
He moved away into the cave.
‘You have Avi?’ She had climbed up to help it seems.
I wondered how she could have moved so quietly… then remembered the wind. I handed her our own lantern so she could light it from hers. I saw in her arms a third Fox pup. She was dressed in farmer linens with a dark red crochet shawl with a green leaf design embroidered along its edge. She had a satchel bag of a pale leather which matched her well-made leather travelling boots. Farmers linens consisted of pants that were extra thick at and below the knee, a long sleeved tunic and a sort of apron that hung down the front and the back to just below the knee and was tied at the waist on the sides. She pulled two more shawls from the satchel bag and some dried salted meat.
‘I brought this up with me if you need it.’
‘How did you know there was two of us?’
‘I didn’t, it’s what would fit. My bigger bag has a broken strap.’
I apologised for being presumptuous. My brother laughed at me as he came past leading my Avi, Turin. ‘Yes, she does that a lot these days.’
The young woman couldn’t take her eyes off the Avi. I saw her move a hand as if to pat it but for some reason she reconsidered. Turok saw it too and tried to pull Eryno over so he could get some adoration. I hissed at him, there would be plenty of time later. The woman snapped her attention to me as I did. I must truly be strange to her… We both would.
It didn’t take long to roll the blankets and make tracks away from the cave. After lighting our lantern she had called out a second fox, a big smaller than the vixen but he had a bushier tail. He carried the second lantern. It was really smart because they lit the way ahead in a way that wouldn’t hurt our night vision. I led Turok through the dark and Eryno followed us from the sky. I could hear the occational rhythmic wing beats. The night had gone eerie still. The cloud was high and whispy; a thunderstorm’s anvil. It wasn’t a hard walk down the hill to the forest’s edge. As we entered a freshly burned meadow we could see the towering cloud light up from within. The meadow clung to warm humid air that was heavy with a burnt, earthy aroma. I could feel a cold draft coming from the forest behind us. Across the meadow I could see the lights of a farmhouse with a small windmill and a large barn. We followed the fence-line through the meadow. On the other side of the fence-line was more a sparcely-planted, managed forest- probably fruit or nuts or both. Eryno moved over our heads low enough for us to feel the wind from his Avi’s wings.
‘That storm in front of us is part of a chain, five that I can see, funnelled in together by the mountains.’
‘Thank you.’ I found myself saying without a lot of thought, ‘We would have run into trouble if you hadn’t come.’
‘You’re welcome. We get travellers fairly often… though not this time of year. If you’re travelling west again you can stop by. Our farm is very productive and we can spare you and your animals the food.’
My brother and I understood well. This woman and her household were ‘humans’. They were rewarded for their good tenure on the land and they were blessed by their own generosity. Apparently our grandfather was Human too, not another person from the settlement but a travelling learned healer that stayed in our village to study with our master. He left the village before our grandmother knew she was pregnant so he didn’t know we existed and it was no-one’s fault.
We continued down the fence-line and then the race to the yard. The barn door was wide open for us and warm light spilled from it into the courtyard. A street lantern hung where the race met the yard so that they could find the gate’s latch in the dark. She opened the gate for me and closed it behind me. A young man left the house and crossed the cobblestone yard to greet me with arms wide.
‘Well met, Travellor. Come. Come in where it’s warm. Were you hungry?’
‘No, just tired.’ I replied as Eryno brought his Avi in to land on the far side, right near the barn.
‘Well there you go.’ The man put a hand on his head as if to hold a hat in place. ‘An Avi… at my farm… A flight Avi no less.’ He then looked past me and a second hand went to his head, ‘Two? A flight and a burden. Thank you for coming.’
‘No, Thank you for the hospitality.
The woman gave me an appreciative smile. ‘Juke is my husband, he will give your Avi a stall, I’ll need to prepare another bed for your…’
‘He’s my brother.’
‘Okay. I’ll get a bed ready for your brother, please come inside.’
I untied my pack from the saddle, ‘Turok is very affectionate, Don’t give him loves until he is in the stall or you’ll never be rid of him.Turin over there is a hog for water so you need to give it in small buckets so it doesn’t end up all over the floor.’
‘Thanks for the warning. It’s no problem… but what do they eat?’
‘Just water. They had their fill of bats at the cave.’
The woman pulled a face, ‘Oh, dear. I hope they didn’t eat too many or grandmother would be upset.’
‘Three or four each… it’s not too many is it?’ I loaded myself up and followed her indoors.
‘As far as I’m concerned the fewer bats the better. But we do empty the caves onto our garden from the time to time to help the plants grow. What we don’t need we cart to town. It stinks sourly but earns us good money. I’m sure that many won’t be missed.’
Just outside the door hung a sign saying ‘Goldcave Lodge.’ I liked the name. The threshold lights revealed a smooth stone path bordered by herb beds leading up to a creamy rendered, dark tiled building with a mosaic tiled decoration along the wall about level with the hip, also in a dark tile presumably similar to the roof. Her husband had left the door open and I could see inside before I had crossed the threshold. The outdoor rendering continued inside without the decoration. The stone path outside became flagstone floors with wool rugs for comfort. The entrance was wide and off to one side was a cloak bay.
‘I’m sorry.’ She said, ‘We didn’t have much warning about guests so please forgive the mess.’
My brother and I removed out cloaks and boots. She finally got to see us so her face developed a childish glow, ‘Ah, so that explains the Avi.’ She took my cloak first. ‘May I ask what clan you are?’
‘We’re Delphin.’ My brother answered as she took his cloak. He imediately began unwrapping his braid from around his neck.
‘Goodness. You are far from home.’
‘Yes, we have messages for the capital and need to buy a few specialty items.’
‘I see. Come, I’ll introduce you to my grandmother.’
We followed her out of the entrance where there were two steps down separating a large room with a polished wooden table, a fire and signs of industry. On one side of the fire was a selection of stained pots and freshly dyed wool drying on a rack. On the other side I could see a partially packed smoker and beside that a stone topped workbench with what appeared to be goat remains. It must have cost them a small fortune for the stone, unless it was quarried here on the farm somewhere… the cave perhaps. On the wall opposite the fire was a rack of drying herbs, in the corner was some wickerwork. It was indeed messy but it was the comforting sort that a house aquires when it’s lived in, that makes it a home.
We sat at the end furthest from the fire where it was more comfortable and introduced ourselves properly. She introduced herself, ‘I’m Peta. My husband is Juke and my grandmother is Serah.’
There was a knock on the other door and Peta got up to open it. ‘There is also my brother, his wife and three children here, My uncle and aunt and my two cousins have a house on the other side of the barn.’ She opened the door and took a tray from what turned out to be the older woman. Peta brought the tray over and Serah slowly and stiffly came down the stairs into the room cursing her old bones.
‘Grandmother, these are the travellers from the cave, Oommerra and Eryno.’
‘Merry met. I have some broth here for you. You can eat and we can talk while Peta prepares your beds.’
‘Thank you for having us. It’s been a couple of weeks since we slept in a bed.’ Eryno said as he received a bowl from the tray.
‘I like your accent.’ She said, ‘My eyes are not so good any more, are you of an elven race?’
‘Yes.’ I answered this time, ‘Delphin.’
‘That was not a clan I was expecting, no wonder your accent wasn’t very familiar.’
I saw a bright flash in the window and realised that I had forgotten about the storm.
‘What sort of farm is this?’ Eryno asked her while I counted for the thunder. ‘We saw a mill.’
‘The Mill belongs to my son and his family… well I suppose the word "belongs" isn’t accurate. It’s part of the farm. Let us say that he runs it. Mostly we grow soya and Lucerne but the farm is almost entirely self-contained. I used to use the mill to make cloth but I’m too old now to work the looms. Juke runs small herds of goat and they give us milk, fleece and meat so we do well enough.’
‘I see you have a smoker.’ Eryno was looking eager; the carnivore.
Serah nodded. ‘We get snowed in every year so need to make sure we put enough away. That’s why were self contained.’
I was enjoying the broth very much. ‘is that what all of this is about?’ I used a hand to indicate the various industries, ‘To keep you busy over the winter months.’
A thunderous rumble came from significantly closer now. You couldn’t count to ten between the lightning flashes now.
‘It’s to keep us busy in general. We need to keep practicing the skills, as one of the longer-lived races do you not find that you lose skills over time if you don’t use them?’
‘I think we’re both too young to answer that your satisfaction but as a bowman I can appreciate what you’re saying.’ I looked to my brother. I knew he didn’t really practice with that staff of his. He was looking back to the door. Then I heard it too. Someone in the entrance taking their boots off.
Juke came in looking warm and happy. He came over and joined them at the table. ‘I can’t sit for long.’
‘I understand. Farms start early.’ Eryno was looking at the herb rack, he’d only just noticed the other things around the room.
I explained for the residents, ‘ My brother and I grow and prepare herbs. We’re on our way to the capital to trade our preparations. Now that we are of marrying age in our Clan we might need to build a second house.’
Serah seemed to have trouble as she turned on the bench and reached for a jar from one of the herb shelves, ‘Could you perhaps help me with this?’ She asked Eryno.
He pulled the jar down for her and inspected the contents quickly, ‘Himalayan Sage, commonly used for cater….’
‘It’s okay,' she coaxed, 'they know.’
‘…for cataracts.’ Eryno finished.
‘If you have some to sell, we could pay a fair price for it.’
I shook my head.
‘I can fly some down for you once were home. I’d be happy to sell to you. It does mean it could be as much as a month away.’
‘I would be grateful.’ She said.
Juke got to his feet, ‘ Well goodnight everyone. I will probably be in the fields when you leave so I’ll say goodbye too.’ He walked out at the same time as Peta tried to walk in and they almost collided. They shared a warm smile and their eyes glowed with companionship for a moment before they kept on their separate ways.
‘If you’re done eating I’ll show you to your room.’
‘Thank you.’ I returned my brother’s bowl for him because it was easier for me to reach. I made to follow Peta upstairs but Eryno seemed to be about to decide something so I waited a moment.
‘May I ask a trade?’ He finally said, ‘Celery seed for some dried meat?’ He pulled a bundle from his pack about the size of a closed fist. In it were three smaller bundles of the seed.
‘That would be a fair trade, It would help me some so I will talk to Juke in the morning about it.’ She loaded the tray and was getting up as he returned the seeds to his bag.
I followed after Peta to an upstairs landing. This floor was wood panelling until about shoulder height and then windowed. The wall with the doors was rendered on top instead. There was a skirting board lightly carved and painted with an ivy decoration
‘The first door here is the bathroom and latrine. The door at the end is your room.’ She handed me a candlestick but with the flashes of lightning there would be no trouble finding my way. My brother was behind her now and moved aside for her to head back downstairs.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘This was an unexpected delight.’
‘It was wise to come to this side of the country.’ He said as he joined me. ‘They’re not so familiar with the Delphin and hold no grudges against us.’
‘But it’s still such a long way to come.’
‘Well, if we flew we’d be home already.’
I gave him a light shove, ‘Cut it out or I’ll cut your hair for your bride.’
‘You will not!’
I couldn’t keep the smile from my face, ‘I would… and I’d explain how your sister took it from you too.’
‘Shut up and get to bed.’ He playfully pushed me back.
‘Ladies first.’ I gave a mock bow at the door.
He patted his own cheek and put on a silly voice, ‘My, how gracious of you.’
Just as he stepped forward to go in I slipped in first. We laughed together. We listened to the storm for a while and we went to bed.