The morning came dressed in frosty golden light which crept in through the windows and warmed the floorboards with it's touch. Saeo woke slowly. It had been well past midnight when the inn's most enthusiastic patrons had finally staggered home, but as wakefulness worked it's way into her stiff limbs and drowsy mind, she remembered that it was Sunday morning.
Suddenly rejuvenated, she threw back the covers and leapt out of bed so quickly that she found herself light headed. Getting dressed was a simple affair: she chose the less wrinkled of her two dresses, a simple blue and white garment which belted at the waist and did nothing to flatter her boyish figure. She washed her hands and face in a basin of cold water, having neither the time nor the inclination to wait for a kettle to boil, and ran a brush through her hair until it resembled something other than the tangle of long, dry grass she had woken up wearing.
That accomplished, she stared at her reflection in her small hand mirror, scrunching up her nose at the generous collection of freckles sprinkled across her cheeks. They had faded since the summer, but she knew full well that by the time they vanished completely, summer would be in the valley again, and she'd have a whole new generation of freckles to loathe. If she'd had the spending money, she would have gone into town and bought a remedy from the local herbalist. Saeo scowled at her mirror self. That was just one more reason to sneak out of the Mistress's clutches for an hour. If she hurried, she could be gone and back again before the old badger finished her morning tea.
She padded down the stairs in stocking feet, and slipped into the kitchen. Her nose lead her to a basket of warm, fragrant buns sitting in the middle of the counter.
"You're up early," said Marius, who had heard her come in. He was stirring a pot of something thick and dark that smelled deliciously of blueberries. Saeo briefly wondered if he had slept in the kitchen last night, for she couldn't imagine he would have looked so well rested had he ridden all the way to town and back again.
"It's Sunday." She smiled, pilfering one of the buns and taking a large bite before he could tell her to put it back. It tasted of raisins, cinnamon, and maple sugar.
"You'll be wanting to go out and play then?" The big man asked, looking over his shoulder and frowning slightly. It wasn't a real frown, or at least not the sort that a person wore when they were displeased. For Marius, a frown was the foundation upon which all expressions were built.
"I'm not playing, I'm going hawking with Danwyn." Saeo scowled, taking another bite so that her mouth was full to bursting.
"You're going to go watch Danwyn's bird hunt." He corrected her dryly. "Hawking is done with hawks. That scruffy bundle of feathers is just a sparrow with a bad temper."
Saeo swallowed hard so she could stick her tongue out at him. Marius was a man of simple tastes and strong opinions. She had learned long ago that there was no point in arguing with him, but that didn't mean she couldn't dodge the subject altogether.
"Please may I go hawking with Wynn?" She asked, trying to look as pitiful as she could. Marius stirred his jam in silence for a long moment, then sighed.
"Fine, you can go, but do up the dishes and make sure you're back in an hour. Bring in a few cords of firewood when you get back, too. The mistress is expecting visitors for supper, so I'll need to get a leg of lamb roasting early in the day."
"Thank you." Saeo grinned, polishing off her breakfast and moving to the sink to rinse her sticky hands. The water was still warm, so she set about scrubbing the breakfast dishes without complaint, but she wasn't even halfway finished when there was a knock on the kitchen window. A familiar smile beamed in at them and the door opened, admitting a swirl of powder snow and a lanky young man with a bird perched on his glove.
"A good morning to you, honest kitchen folk."
He greeted them with a cheerful, exaggerated bow. He was perhaps a handful of years older than Saeo, though at least a full two heads taller. He dressed in simple, warm clothes that were just a little too big for him, giving the impression that he was even taller and leaner than he really was.
"Was hoping I might trouble you for some lovely meaty scraps for me and the missus. It's a beautiful day, and she's is eager to fly."
"Take Saeo. She's not much more than a scrap."Marius said with the barest hint of a smile. Saeo glared at him, but he seemed to either not notice or not care. Deciding that the issue wasn't worth pressing, she went to the cold box to retrieve a small package wrapped in brown paper. When Marius was butchering, she always made it a point to steal a few pieces of whatever was left over for Rayna.
Saeo glanced back over her shoulder at Wynn and his bird. She had always thought the little kestrel was a beautiful creature. She wasn't much larger than a pigeon, with brown and black feathers that resembled the surface of a pine cone. Her eyes, though presently obscured by a leather hood, were dark and fierce, her beak hooked and her talons sharp so that even now, Danwyn wore thick leather gloves to protect his hands. Sadly, she wasn't the sort of bird most hunters could earn a living with. Rayna was too small and finely boned to take quarry much larger than a field mouse, and would have been hard pressed to earn her keep had Danwyn not found her employment at the Temple of the Hunt in Ambervale. She had become quite skilled at keeping sparrows and other small birds from nesting among the ornate roofs.
Wynn had often told her, with no small amount of jealously, about the fine birds that nobility carried on their shoulders. Falconry had long been a sport that nobles used to show off to one another, and there were dozens of strict rules regarding which birds might be kept by Dukes, which might be kept by Lords and which were forbidden to all but those of royal blood. A man like Wynn, who had neither title nor land to distinguish himself, was only permitted to fly the common kestrel. All the same, Saeo thought the tiny hawk had a quiet dignity about her; a queen who faithfully served even the most humble of her subjects.
Saeo went to the cupboard for her cloak and shoes while the men chatted about the weather and the price of mutton. Winter had come early that year, and her wardrobe reflected her lack of preparation. It didn't look like an exceptionally cold day, so she simply dressed as warmly as she could without resorting to borrowing Marius's clothes.
"Just see to it that she get back in an hour."
Marius told Wynn as they prepared to leave. The young man smiled, dipping into another exaggerated bow that forced Rayna to flare her wings for balance.
"Not to worry, my good jam maker. She'll be back before you even realize she's missing."
Marius grunted in a way that suggested he wasn't convinced, but didn't feel like arguing. Saeo collected the package of scrap meat from the table and tucked it into her satchel. She then blew a kiss to Marius -who, of course, ignored her- and stepped through the door Wynn held open for her.
It was a glorious winter day. Clean, white snow crunched deliciously underfoot, and the air smelled fresh and cold. Saeo and Danwyn crossed the main road leading into town and worked their way down a narrow path which lead south into the forest. Saeo had to take special care not to snag the hem of her dress on the fallen branches which littered the forest floor, but made an effort to look like she was at home in the wilderness. She had always been a little jealous of the way Danwyn moved through the trees as quickly and quietly as a fox on the prowl, and took great pains to ensure he didn't find out, lest she never hear the end of it.
"So, how's business?" Danwyn asked, waiting on the crest of a small hill for Saeo to catch up.
"Wretched, as usual," she grumbled, allowing him to help her over the bones of an ancient tree. "How about yours?'
"Silva caught two rabbits and a skinny raccoon yesterday, so about as good." The young man admitted with a resigned shake of his head.
"I don't know what it is, but there's been practically no big game these past few weeks. Normally I'd blame the weather, but it's been a mild winter so far, so there's really no reason the hunting should be this bad."
"Do you think it's poachers?" Saeo asked. She vaguely remembered overhearing someone at the inn talking about a group of poachers being arrested and hanged in White Stone Valley. It had been an awful story -the man telling it seemed to take great pleasuring in describing how the hanged men danced beneath the gallows- but it had caught her attention because hunters from the valley often came east to trade.
"This close to the boarder?" Wynn shrugged. "I wouldn't rule it out. Those northerners tend to get desperate this time of year. I suppose we should just grateful they haven't started stealing our livestock and kidnapping our women."
"Your women?" Saeo teased, tossing a small stick at the back of his head. It bounced off and landed in a snow bank. He turned to her with an expression of mock-indignation.
"Yes, our women." He said. "The women of Kalmin, collectively. You really think I would go around labelling women as my property? You wound me, Saeo." He reached down to pick something up off the ground. It was a pine cone -Saeo realized this when it bounced against her forehead. She tried to look angry, but couldn't keep from chuckling as she wiped dirty snow from her face.
"You'll be the first to get carted off, idiot."
"Not at all," Wynn countered, the picture of innocence, "when I see them coming, I'll just lean against the nearest fencepost and pretend to be a scarecrow. They'd never never know I'm there."
It wasn't long before they reached a small meadow that rested beside a frozen pond. A copse of Rowan trees with clusters of snowy, scarlet berries brought cheer to the cold scenery. Wynn had explained to Saeo before that Rowan berries attracted hungry songbirds, which made excellent quarry for a small hawk like Rayna. He offered Saeo one of his gloves and allowed her to carry his bird out into the centre of the meadow.
"Remember, the hood comes off last." He told her, stepping back as she released the jesses tethering Rayna to her fist. Once the bird's legs were free, Saeo extended her arm away from her body and removed the leather hood covering her eyes. Rayna blinked and ruffled her feathers, as though just waking up, and Saeo couldn't help grinning at her.
"Good morning pretty girl," She cooed. "It's time to stretch those wings. Up you go." It only took a light nudge of her hand to send the hawk streaking into the clear morning air. She watched her for a moment, admiring the glint of sunlight on her wings, then moved to rejoin Danwyn at the edge of the meadow.
They followed behind the hawk at a leisurely place, using long branches to methodically poke at the brambles on the edge of the meadow. The songbirds had scattered as soon as they sensed a predator in the area, but a number of them had taken shelter in the low bushes and would fly out when their hiding places were disturbed. It took Rayna a few tries to catch her first prize, but she seemed to get the hang of things after that. Before long before, she had taken a half dozen songbirds which either Wynn or Saeo had quickly retrieved from her and replaced with a scrap of meat. Saeo felt a little sorry for the birds, but she took comfort in knowing that Danwyn wasn't the sort of man who hunted for pleasure. Rayna needed to stay in practice, and with the hawk, a pair of trained ferrets and a sight hound all needing to be fed, no kill was ever wasted.
On their way back from collecting a chickadee Rayna had felled just beyond the tree line, Saeo noticed something strange in the snow. At first she thought it was just an odd shadow, but when she took a few steps toward it she noticed that it was actually one of many depressions that stretched across the clearing in a regular pattern.
"Wynn, I found tracks!" She called, kneeling to take a better look. Her heart fluttered when she saw that her hand could easily fit inside one of the huge prints. They were broad and soft like a cat's paw, but with scores at the end of the toes that suggested long claws. "Danwyn?" She called a second time, not realizing until she turned her head that he was already beside her. Once again, she found herself jealous of how he could sneak up on her even with the crunch of packed snow under his feet.
"Steel and timber," he swore, taking a knee in the snow beside her, "its massive..."
"What made them? Is it still nearby?"
The young man rubbed the back of his neck, frowning thoughtfully down at the paw prints.
"Hard to say...the weather`s been warm, so they might be a day old or...you know what? We should go." He rose and went to collect Rayna from a low branch, where she was tearing enthusiasticly into the scrap of meat he had given her. It took him less than a minute to hood and tether her, at which point he started back toward the meadow. Saeo brushed the snow from her knees and followed him, glancing nervously over her shoulder at the strange tracks.
"Wynn, what was it?"
She asked, trying to sound unconcerned as they picked their way across the meadow, then back up the path they had followed from the inn.
"Something big that definitely isn't native to this forest. Best we clear out in case its still nearby."
"Wynn, I've seen you square off against black bears and wolves. Why are you getting so worked up about some tracks?"
He sighed, holding back a branch so it wouldn't strike her in the face when she passed. Saeo frowned. She didn't like seeing Danwyn so worried.
"They're cat tracks," He said finally "but there hasn't been anything bigger than a bobcat in Kalmin for a hundred years, easy.
"Was there ever a cat that big?"
"Yeah. There were lions, once."
Saeo frowned thoughtfully. The word was familiar, but only in a vague sort of way.
"Lions?" She asked, just to be sure she'd heard him right. Danwyn nodded.
"Big yellow cats. They lived here before the first king took throne, or at least that's the story. He challenged their leader to a duel and won, so he forced them north and told them never to enter Kalmish lands again."
"That's just a story though," she scoffed, "like how if you offend the Spirit of the Hearth, she sends a white rabbit to sit on your chest when you're sleeping and suck out your breath."
"I'm not saying I believe the story," Wynn sighed, not appreciating the implication that he was superstitious, "but the fact is that Lions have never come over the Northern boarder, at least not in my lifetime or my father's. If there is a lion hunting around here, it's going to cause problems. I should bring word to Stormdown."
Saeo's eyes sparkled at the mention of an adventure.
"I can come with you." She told him, scrambling over the crest of the hill which separated the forest from the main road. Here, Wynn chuckled in a way that made Saeo want to shove him and let him tumble all the way to the bottom.
"You have chores, my sweet lamb," he reminded her with condescending sweetness, "I'm not going to get any hunting done today anyway, so Ill borrow my brother's horse and ride out as soon as I drop you off."
"But I'm the one who found them!" Saeo argued as they made their way around to the kitchen entrance, "and in any case-"
Wynn grabbed her roughly by the arm and she yelped. She whirled around to face him, intending to ask just what he thought he was doing, until she saw that his attention was directed not toward her, but to a tall man standing near the stable. Saeo's breath caught in her throat when she saw the early sun glittering atop the silver embroidery of the royal crest on his surcoat.
Her knight was in the courtyard.