The forest surrounding him was harsh and cold. The bare trees showing no sign of the coming spring and the ground still layered in a thick blanket of ice and snow. The sun in the sky was directly overhead, but the moon could still be seen on the far horizon if you were to stand at the edge of the cliff and look out across the valley. Asher stood half hidden behind a tree, bow strung and aimed at a large doe who was grazing in the clearing. He released the stone arrow missing the animal by a hair breadth. Startled the deer moved to the other edge of the clearing, taking cover behind the tall brush. Asher restrung his bow and took aim again, this time sure he could get the clear kill shot that presented itself. A loud growl rang through the forest, and the deer took flight deeper into the trees, deeper than even he dared follow. He looked around for the source of the sound. Staring directly at him from across the clearing was what appeared to be a grizzly old wolf, its already grey fur laced with silver and its black eyes blue with cataracts. Asher stomped to the tree with his arrow imbedded in the bark. “You damed dog, that was the only game for miles!” He pulled the arrow out with a grunt and checked the fletching before shoving it back into his quiver slung across his back.
A small yelp came from behind the old wolf. Asher started, tensing, but what appeared behind the old wolf was only a small grey pup covered in what looked like blood and had a small lump of meat hanging from his mouth. The pup dropped the meat in front of the elder then looked toward Asher with what surprise, as if he had just noticed the other being present in the forest. The wolfs eyes where a startling blue, so pale they had the semblance of an icicle handing from a hut. The old wolf bent his head and picked up the meat then turned away, walking into the forest without a sound. Asher expected the small one to follow but it hadn’t moved. It sat on the thin bed of pine needles and simply watched him, never blinking. Asher stared back for what felt like hours before finally turning back towards the path that would lead him home.
He followed the faint game trail that lead toward the bottom of the mountain range, moving as fast as the bramble would allow. He had a ways to go yet, and he was unsure of the time as the dense net of trees above allowed only the faintest light into the forest of the Beores. When he came near the bottom of the mountain, and he could hear the stream rattling over the rocks, he turned, trekking directly down the mountain toward the nearest ford.
The stream was thin there, it’s width reaching no more then ten feet across, and its water levels low for early spring. At the bottom of the mountain grass was visible peaking through the powdery snow, and buds were beginning to appear on trees, he could even hear the occasional bird song ring through the forest.
As he reached the middle of the road he paused to look back into the forest, saying goodbye to the quiet solitude it provided. Pulling out the last of his bread and cheese he began to eat before continuing his walk home. A loud splash sounded from behind him, making him turn his toward the sound. Splashing in the shallows on the bank was a startlingly white wolf pup, looking new washed from his cold bath. Confused Asher took a step closer, as if aware of his gaze the pup stopped what it was doing, turned and sat on it haunches looking directly at him. He saw then the colour of it’s eyes, blue. It was the same one he’d seen deep in the Beores. He stared at it. The stupid animal had followed him all the way down the mountain.
“Go!” he yelled at it, waving a hand toward the forest. “Shoo!” It only stared at him, head cocked to the right. But of course it was just an animal, it couldn’t understand him. Shaking his head he kicked his dropped bread over the side and into the water before returning to his trek. Splashes sounded as the pup found his way out of the water, his newly white fur sparkling in the sun. Let it follow, it didn’t really matter to him, he just hoped it could find it way back again.
From here he could see the city, beyond miles of fields empty of any farmers. Was his birth city, its glorious buildings sparkling in the sun light, and in the middle was the palace. He sighed and looked down to his right where the pup had taken his place. It was already watching him with an intense curiosity. He got the feeling then that the wolf could see his thoughts and he shivered at the prospect. Turning back to the road, he began to walk, dreading his return home.
As he neared the gates he realized that the wolf pup had disappeared, choosing to return home rather then approach the city. The guards at the gates nodded to him but had been far to busy placing bets to really have a good look at him. He released a breath when they where behind him, and turned to follow the wall until he reach the plaza. No one payed him a moments notice as he made his way through the city, their gazes passed by him without pause and the few who took notice at all smiled pleasantly then turned their attentions back to the tasks at hand.
The anonymity pleased him and he passed through the city without a word.
Someone called his name and he flinched turning toward the sound. The man behind him was large and burly, looking as fierce as a bear but a large grin had spread across his scarred face.
“Ho Asher!” He said “What do you have for me this time?” The big man eyed his pack eagerly, as Asher usually came back from a hunt with multiple game.
Asher grinned at him, thankful it had only been the butcher. “Ho Horst! I haven’t much, game is hard to come by this time of year, but lets take this to your shop.” The large butcher nodded complacently and started toward the small building dome the street.
“Your tellin’ me!” said the butcher “My shops been empty a costumers all day!” The butcher continued on for the next ten minutes, obviously pleased at the company and the chance to do some business. Asher watched the burly man from the corner of his eye, carful to keep a smile on his face.
They soon reach the small shop and Asher wrinkled his nose at the smell of death that emanated from the place. It’s not as if the rest of the city had a particularly pleasant smell. In fact a good deal of the time it smelled of urine, however this was worse. Breathing through his mouth, he went in, waiting by the counter as Horst went in through the back.
“Alright!” He said “let’s a see what you’ve managed to scrape up!” Asher nodded, pulling his pack on the counter and opening it to show the assortment of small animals.
“Hmm, good bunch you’ve got here! Expertly skinned and cleaned as usual!” Asher smiled at the compliment. It wasn’t often be was rewarded with one as such.
“How much?” He asked, nodding toward the pile.
“Well these are some good sized animals for small game, so I’d say..” He paused deliberating “I’d say perhaps 50 lugels? ”
Asher nodded “Ok, done” Horst frowned
“You never haggle, takes all the fun out of it!”
Asher smiled at him “Sorry”
The big man sighed, but shook his head “No need to apologize, it just seems odd is all”
This time Asher frowned “How so?” He asked “The prices you name are more then reasonable, why would I want to haggle a higher price for the meats?”
“Well yes, I suppose thats true, but everyone haggles, no matter if the prince is fair or not”
Asher put a hand on the back of his neck, the small hairs under his cap tickling the ends of his fingers. “Interesting. I will still however accept this price for today”
“Of course” Horst said, nodding. “I would expect nothing else” he paused for a moment watching him. Asher fidgeted under the gaze. “The way you talk sometimes boy, I would swear your on of the royals themselves, but” he shook his head “thats ridiculous of course.”
Asher stared at him silent, then forced a laugh, “Yes, ridiculous.”
Still shaking his head Horst handed Asher the bag of coins before raising a hand to wave goodbye. “I’ll see you soon then?”
Asher flinched, thinking of how he had snuck out. “I do not think so. I am sure my parents will be furious” Horst looked surprised at this.
“What, they didn’t know you left?” Asher shook his head in shame, concentrating on tying the bag to his belt and tucking it under the thick folds of his tunic.
“Huntings not their favourite of my pass times, and its not as though we’re not well enough off without it. I simply enjoy it” Horst nodded.
“Understandable enough. Until next time then!”
Asher nodded and left the shop, slipping back into the shadows and made his way home, the thought of seeing his father weighing heavily on his mind.
Finally he had reached home, his modest clothing covered in dirt and his face hidden behinds mounds of fur to ward off the the cold, he slunk in the shadows of the service gate. A young maid looked up at him, meeting his eyes and it took but a moment before she darted off in the opposite direction, and with the weight of his pack he could not move fast enough to stop her. In minutes he was surrounded by guards and house servants, all ushering him toward his father.
“Enough!” rang a sharp commanding voice from a boy he could not see, but sight was not needed for he recognized it immediately.
The men around him parted instantly, allowing the boy to see Asher in all his fur clad, mud caked glory.
Asher bowed low, his eyes never leaving the dark ones of the boy-man in front of him. “Your highness” he said.
The boy in front of him looked relaxed, a lazy smile had spread across his face, and his dark hair had fallen into his eyes where is had come out of it ties. He looked as though he was trying to suppress a laugh.
“Brother” he said looking him up and down “What a mess, you mustn’t go before the emperor like this!”