Happy New Year, everyone! Have a free short story starring Shaiel and Demero.
This takes place about ten years after the stories in Unbound and Free. Contains no real spoilers, it’s a standalone piece and it really is short.
Enjoy! And a merry 2015 to you all.
Shaiel woke to a dying fire and an empty campsite. “Not again,” he groaned, sitting up and scratching at his tangled hair.
All around him spring was waking up the wood. Pale green covered each tree in a rash of new growth, insects skittered in the undergrowth and far off, on the edge of the trees, blackbirds sang to call forth a distant sunrise.
Yet here in the small cleared space beneath a ring of oaks, Shaiel was alone. “Great.” Emerging from his blanket, he leant forward to stir up the fire. The space opposite him was piled high with a rumpled blanket and an open pack. At least his companion couldn’t have gone too far then.
Embers glowed sullenly as Shaiel poked the ashes, then added fresh twigs. In moments little flames were licking at the wood, and he held out his hands to the warmth against the morning chill. Spring was coming, but it wasn’t quite here yet.
Somewhere close by a wren yelled abuse in a voice that far outweighed its tiny size. Shaiel smiled and held up his arm.
A magpie dropped down from the branches, feathers ruffled, chest panting.
“Having fun meeting the locals, Messi?”
The magpie sneezed and set about preening her wings, green and blue shimmering across the black in the firelight.
“Did you see which way he went?”
Riffling one final feather into place, Messenger looked up at him and cocked her head.
Shaiel sighed and tossed a handful of twigs onto the fire. “Is it far?”
Messenger wiped her beak on his arm.
Checking that the fire was small and contained enough to be left for a short while, Shaiel reached for his cloak and stood up. “Show me.”
Chuckling, Messenger flapped away into the shadows of the trees.
* * *
Demero stood at the edge of the small wood, shoulder resting against an elm tree, eyes staring out over the rolling hills to where the sun was rising. Light and warmth shone on his smiling face and he breathed in deeply, drinking the rich morning air. Wet earth, fresh moss and crisp, clean cold. Spring.
All around him the birds were waking up, competing against each other to be the loudest, boldest and strongest, marking out their territories and attracting mates. In the green fields below, lambs frolicked away from their mothers or called plaintively on the breeze when they strayed too far. Life here was rich and good and growing.
The crow on his shoulder gave a low croak and Demero straightened up to look behind.
“Found another sunrise?” Shaiel asked, emerging from the shadows with a magpie on his arm. Two more landed on a branch above his head, a third flapping over the fields to join them after a busy night.
Reaching up to stroke his crow, Demero smiled and glanced back at the bright horizon. “Hardly, since I’ve never been careless enough to lose any.”
Shaiel tilted his head and joined him at the wood’s edge. “So what was it this time? Baby blackbird fallen from the nest again, or was it that kestrel who chased us off yesterday?”
A tingling echo rippled through Demero’s fingers and he rubbed them self-consciously. “No, it wasn’t a baby bird,” he muttered, his face growing warm.
“This time,” Shaiel chuckled.
Rubbing his hands together hard, Demero banished the phantom feeling. “How am I supposed to know the difference between something big and something small? I find lost things, Shaiel, that’s what I do.”
“A little too well at times,” his friend remarked dryly. “You let the fire die again.”
Demero rolled his eyes. “As if a little cold will kill you.”
“I’ll remind you of that next time I fall asleep on watch and forget to feed the fire.”
“That’s different,” Demero protested. “You’re just lazy. I only ever neglect the fire for a good reason.”
“Saving baby birds from hungry foxes might be good for the nestlings, but what about the foxes?” Shaiel counter argued. “Don’t they have babies to care for too?”
“Well, yes,” Demero agreed reluctantly. “I suppose…”
“And does this mean you’ll be saving lowly earthworms next? Or perhaps little grubs that have fallen from their holes? Don’t they deserve a chance at life too?”
Demero huffed and folded his arms defensively across his chest. “Now you’re just being foolish.”
Shaiel simply smiled. Truth was the man was frequently foolish. No doubt he thought the same about Demero too, with his habit of chasing down every last tingle that ran across his fingertips, but by the Shadow, Demero had only been dead for twenty years – he was still learning. Not everyone had been granted four hundred years of practise with gifts they barely understood.
“So what was it this time?” Shaiel asked again. “What type of bird did you put back in its nest only to get a scolding from an ungrateful parent?”
Demero’s hand clenched, this time in remembrance of past angry parents and their quick, sharp beaks. “I told you, it wasn’t a baby bird.”
Shaiel gave sceptical snort.
“Truthfully,” Demero argued, holding up his hands. “Ask her.” He pointed to his shoulder. “She witnessed everything.” She always did. Of his two feathered companions, the slightly smaller female was almost always close at hand, while the bigger male preferred to wander.
“Witness,” Shaiel murmured, smiling. “Now there’s a fine name for a feathered friend.”
The crow gave an approving caw, rubbing her beak against Demero’s cheek.
He reached up to caress her with a smile. “Well, ask Witness then. She’ll tell you I haven’t rescued any birds this morning.”
Shaiel eyed the pair of them, then squinted over the fields towards the rising sun. a dark shape emerged from the pale dawn, coming to join them. “The Wanderer returns.”
Demero raised an arm for his second crow. “Time to go?”
The two crows cawed and Shaiel nodded. “I left the fire unattended.”
Demero shot him a glare. “You really are foolish.”
“And you should know better than to leave me in charge of flammable things.” Whistling for his magpies, Shaiel headed back into the trees. “So what did call you out this morning, if it wasn’t the sun or a bird?”
Demero kicked at the soggy undergrowth and muttered something under his breath.
“What was that?” his friend asked cheerfully, leaning closer with a hand cupped around his ear. “I didn’t quite catch it.”
Huffing, Demero tossed Wanderer up to a tree branch above their camp, where the fire was crackling safely in its ring of stones. “A fox cub. It was stuck in a hole.”
His friend laughed, divested himself of magpies and sat down to prepare breakfast. “After you’ve spent days saving baby birds from hungry foxes, now you’re saving hungry foxes from forest traps. I do hope you fed it a fallen nestling as you took it home.”
Fetching supplies from his own bag, Demero threw a stale hank of bread at Shaiel. It bounced off his head, making him curse. Demero smiled smugly. “I’m no god to rule over life and death. I just find things that are lost.”
Rubbing his head, Shaiel gave him a baleful stare. “Stale bread and dusty oat porridge for breakfast again. And to think you were once such a mighty hunter. Next time you’re called to save a partridge, save it for the pot, won’t you?”
Demero shook his head at his friends complaints, knowing Shaiel would never really ask him to exploit his gifts in such a way. “Maybe we should work on your slinging. Then you wouldn’t need me to hunt for you.”
Shaiel picked up the stale bread and tossed it in his hand, looking thoughtfully at Demero’s head. Then he put it aside with a sigh, knowing full well his aim was so bad he’d never hit him. “Maybe we should. Right after we get out of this wood. I’m fed up of passing back and forth over the same stretch of blessed land, just because you’re getting tingly. Remind me never to walk the woods with you in spring again.”
“Because we have so many other important places to be,” Demero scoffed.
His friend put a pot of porridge over the fire to heat and sat back with a smile. “Mayhaps we do. Didn’t you recognise those fields the sun rose over this morning?”
Scratching his nose, Demero shut his eyes and recalled the dawn scene. He’d been so busy watching the sky turn a hundred different shades of pink and gold that he hadn’t paid much attention to the world below. A world of rolling green hills, distant high ridges and deep, shadowed valleys. The deep world.
“Dumnonia,” he breathed.
Shaiel smiled. “Welcome home, my friend.”