Updated: Oct 30, 2018
Hammond alerted Caldor of the visitor before the knocking began. He had just slipped into ethereal half-sleep when the fat bird fluttered onto his chest, pecking at his neck incessantly. He groaned and swatted at his companion, who ducked the calloused hand with ease.
“Lemme sleep,” he grumbled, peeking at the raven perched atop him with one half-opened eye. Hammond tilted his head and met his gaze, then pecked once more at his neck. As Caldor began to turn to his side, the knocking began. It was two loud bangs, enough to startle him into motion. On the other side of the room, he heard Eira jolt awake as well.
“Go back to sleep. I’ll deal with this,” Caldor said as he sat up and Hammond repositioned to his usual spot on his shoulder. The sky was clear tonight, and the moon shined through the window just enough to let him see his way to the door. He glanced over to the other bed, where a small body was curled into the fetal position under the covers.
Two more bangs rattled the door and Caldor checked to make sure his blade was within reach before sliding open the lock and peeking outside.
It was the innkeeper, a burly, older man with a thick gray beard. He had broader shoulders than Caldor, himself an exceptionally broad man.
“I told you to only knock on my door if someone was dead or dying, which one is it?” Caldor asked.
“Not sure, but it seems like it’s a job for you,” the innkeeper turned and began to head downstairs. “She says she needs a Watcher.”
“Everyone needs a Watcher, that’s the problem,” Caldor muttered as he grabbed his cloak and turned to Hammond. “Watch her. If anything happens, get my attention.”
The raven met his eye and hopped onto Eira’s bed as Caldor closed the door. He swung the cloak over his shoulders with a fluid motion and clasped it as he walked downstairs, shaking his head of sleep as he went.
The room was lit with several lanterns, and smelled of lamb and liquor. Two clan guards stood uncomfortably near the door, and the innkeeper was near the fireplace, stoking the flames.
A woman sat in the corner of the room, facing the door. Her nose was blue from the cold, and she was shivering beneath several layers of blankets. There was a haunted look in her eye, and she stared unblinking at the far wall.
Caldor was a large man, and by Skellic standards he was ancient. At a ripe age of forty, he had lived twice as long as most other warriors, and—aside from a single, thin scar across his right cheek—he had made it through unscathed. His blond hair had begun to turn white at the base, and the patchy beard that crept across his face like an unseemly mold had also faded in color. He had been handsome in his youth, but the daily stresses of being a Watcher had worn heavily upon him. His face was decorated by grimace lines which gave him a semi-permanent, disapproving frown.
His tall, broad stature commanded attention, and it was given to him as all eyes watched his entrance.
“Get me something that’ll wake me up,” Caldor asked the innkeeper as he passed. He pulled up a chair at the woman’s table. “Tell me what happened.”
“I work for Lord Valdsson at his keep, three miles north,” the woman struggled to get the sentence out through her chattering teeth. “I was cleaning up after the feast, when all the sudden the windows blew open. No, they shattered, and snow came streaming in. That’s when I started to hear the screams.”
The innkeeper approached and the woman fell silent. He slid two steaming glasses of cider onto the table, then slipped away to tend to other matters.
As soon as the glass hit the table, her hands shot out to grab it. Caldor could see her fingertips were turning black. The Watcher respected her, most wouldn’t last an hour outside in nothing but skirts.
“Two of the other maids went out to see what was happening, but I ducked under the table. I watched,” the woman had begun in a whisper, but her voice was rising now. “It was the snow! It was shaped like a wyvern’s head, and it took them up in its jaws. They were hanging, and screaming, and then another head grabbed hold, and they both pulled, and—”
The woman’s words caught in her throat. Caldor heard the two guards muttering behind him. He let the woman grieve for a few moments, letting what he had just heard steep in his mind.
“I’m sorry you had to see that, but I need you to keep going. It’s very important that I know everything I can if you want me to help.”
The woman met his eyes, and he could see the fire of vengeance within them. She nodded solemnly and took a long drink from her cider.
“Their parts were tossed into the snow, and I grabbed a tablecloth and wrapped it around me for warmth. That’s when he walked in front of the door. He was covered in blood, and his cheeks were scarred, like someone had tried to slice off parts of his face,” she began to snarl, as if just recalling the man’s visage was enough to infuriate her. “And there were marks: big, blue marks. Right on his cheeks.”
“A winterborn? In Valdsson’s keep?” one of the guards exclaimed.
“I’d heard stories, but I’ve never seen one in person,” the other guard replied.
“We’ve all heard the stories!” the woman yelled. “And they’re all true. I’ve seen how evil they can be. They’re a curse on this world, and if we don’t stop them as babes this is what we have to look forward to!”
The stairs behind Caldor creaked slightly, and Hammond landed on the Watcher’s shoulder. He sighed.
“Thanks for the warning,” Caldor muttered scornfully to the bird. Hammond puffed his chest out with indignation.
Before he could defuse the situation, the woman began screaming. After what she had been through, he couldn’t blame her.
Eira stood at the foot of the stairs, rubbing her bleary eyes. She had seen ten summers, but seemed younger. She was a mousy girl, with frizzy blond hair and a long, thin nose. She had bundled herself in blankets, which trailed up the stairs. Of course, those aspects of her appearance weren’t why the woman was screaming. No, that was due to the luminous, blue marks covering her neck.
Caldor looked at the guards, whose hands were on their weapons, before glancing around the rest of the room. He began to play out scenarios in his head, assessing various objects in the room as candidates for makeshift weapons.
The woman was still screaming when she hurled her glass of cider at the small girl.
Its contents spewed forth in an arc as it flew towards Eira, but the girl’s eyes shined blue and the steaming droplets turned into small flakes of snow as they neared, floating gently to the ground. The same could not be said for the glass, which Eira showed no intention of dodging.
Caldor swore under his breath and let magic course through him. For a moment, he was nothing but mist, a thin gray streak dashing through the room. He made himself return to corporeality facing Eira, and the glass collided with his back, glancing off his right shoulder blade and smashing into the wall. He winced, but he could tell no real damage was done. The woman was still shrieking, a shrill din that was only exacerbating the situation.
“Hammond, shut her up,” Caldor commanded as the guards began to move closer. “And both of you, stay right where you are.”
The raven hopped onto the table and caught the woman’s eye. They stared at each other, and slowly the panicked screams turned into a low moan which slipped gently into silence. The guards took a tentative step forward, but Caldor’s glare stopped their progress. The Watcher turned to Eira.
“Go back to the room. I’ll come get you in a bit,” he said, speaking softly.
She lowered her head sheepishly and gathered her trailing blankets before retreating back up the stairs.
He didn’t break eye contact with the two guards until he heard the door to his room close. Normally, he would be assured that a couple of guards wouldn’t attack a Watcher, but people did stupid things when they were scared.
“The two of you, have a seat by the door,” Caldor said, nodding his head towards a table. “Do anything brash, I kill you both. Am I clear?”
The two men nodded and sat at the indicated table. Their hands didn’t leave their blades.
Caldor shifted his gaze to the innkeeper, who was grabbing a broom. He didn’t look like he gave a damn about anything that had happened save for the broken glass.
“I’ll pay for that,” Caldor said.
“Hammond, watch them, I’ll be back down in a few moments.”
He turned and strode up the stairs.
That went well, he thought to himself as he knocked softly on the door before entering. Eira was skittish, and startling a winterborn was a poor idea.
She was already dressed, sitting silently on her bed.
Eira pointed towards the lone window in the room. On it, the word ‘sorry’ had been drawn in the frost.
“You didn’t do anything wrong. She’s just having a very bad night,” Caldor began to pack his things into the large haversack by his bed. “In fact, we’re going to go help make her night better.”
Eira perked up noticeably at the notion, meeting Caldor’s weary eyes with her hazel ones.
“We’ve got a long walk ahead,” Caldor fastened his sheath to his side. “Are you up for that?”
Eira nodded and smiled as Caldor dug into the haversack, pulled out two gold pieces, and placed them on the nightstand. He began to don the dark blue leathers of a Watcher.
“Turning the cider to snow was a neat trick, have you been practicing when I was asleep?” Caldor asked.
Eira clasped her hands and rocked back and forth, smiling coyly.
Caldor nodded towards the window, “show me.”
The young winterborn’s eyes ignited in blue energy and outside the window the snow swirled into the silhouette of a hand, which waved to Caldor before dispersing into a flurry.
The grizzled Watcher gave Eira a stern gaze, but then cracked a smile. She beamed back, and wiped the sleep from her eyes.
“Let’s go save the day.”
The duo left the room and descended into the tavern, where the two clan guards still sat at the table and the woman was still staring into Hammond’s onyx eyes.
“Money’s on the table,” Caldor said to the innkeeper, who grunted in acknowledgement. He opened the front door and was met with a blast of chilled air. With a whistle, he commanded Hammond to his rightful place on his shoulder, and the three stepped into the snowy night. Eira’s eyes glowed blue and her digits began to weave strange patterns as the snow began to fall around them, creating a globe-like sanctuary from the thick flakes.
“It’s three miles north of here, let’s get moving.”