His master’s current home was large and undoubtedly comfortable, but the messenger knew his place: outside, huddled in the cold night air. He took shelter in the nearby wood, using a tree trunk as a windbreak while he waited patiently.
There was no indication anyone lived here. The rocky outcrop was less than thirty feet from the edge of the wood, so trees shielded it from the view of anyone passing by. Even if someone ventured closer, all they’d see would be a large hollow forming a cave in the rock face. The entrance to the chamber his master used could only be found if you stepped into the cave and felt around the shadowy edges of the right-hand wall.
The messenger had never been inside. He was only a servant and expected to be treated accordingly. A vital tool, he would be maintained to keep him sharp – fed, watered, rested – but not pandered to in any way.
Of course, any stranger who happened along would almost certainly be distracted from the cave by the hulking creature slumbering just outside. Through the trees, it might go unnoticed, its colouring blending well with the surrounding greenery. But this close it’d be hard to miss.
Even though he knew his master needed the information he carried, and that the beast was under his master’s control, the messenger still felt apprehensive in its presence. Its stillness was unnerving, and its sudden appearance offered no comfort at all. The master kept a string of horses ready for the journey that lay ahead of him, but they’d moved as far from the animal as their tethers allowed. The messenger preferred to keep his distance as well.
Overhead, dark clouds were gathering. A storm could be on its way. The messenger took no notice. If it rained, he would use the overhanging leaves for shelter. His overriding objective was to be there when his master returned, and he’d remain in place as long as necessary.
Dusk drifted into darkness. The clouds passed, and the messenger spent the night cold, but dry.
Slowly, dawn broke behind him. Still nothing stirred.
When the messenger had first arrived, he’d called out once. There’d been no response, but he hadn’t repeated the call. If his master was there, he’d have heard him. He was anxious for news.
So he was away, on one of the many journeys he’d been making recently. Something was drawing him to the places he visited. The messenger didn’t know where they were, or what he was doing there. It was none of his business. His role was to keep the master informed. Nothing more, nothing less.
As the sun rose higher, the messenger became hungry. He’d arrived as the sun set the previous evening, so he’d been waiting for well over half a day. But he couldn’t desert his post. Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait long for food to come to him. The mouse appeared from behind a nearby tree and made its way towards the cave. The messenger pounced. It wasn’t a feast, but it’d keep hunger at bay for now. Then it was back to doing his job. Unmoving, he continued to wait. His legs didn’t tire, his eyes remained alert. He was in no rush.
The sun had slowly rolled through its zenith and was gently turning back towards the earth when the temperature fell slightly. Not enough for the average human to sense, but the messenger was aware. Then it began to rise, again barely noticeable.
About twenty feet in front of him, merging with the faint shadows cast by the surrounding trees, a dark shape materialised.
The figure was crouched low, hunched over, its back to the messenger. It was difficult to tell from this angle exactly what position the master was in, but it certainly wasn’t his normal dominant stance.
For a long moment, he remained where he was, his breath rasping with exertion. Eventually, the messenger heard him spit.
Very slowly, he began to rise. A white hand came into view as it pushed against the ground. His movements seemed less fluid than normal as he twisted awkwardly around, the dark eyes in his pale face coming to rest on the messenger as he stood up. Even then he was bent slightly forward at the waist, his left hand gently rubbing his lower abdomen. Wincing, his lips curled into a sneer.
“Ah! You’re here.” His voice was as harsh as ever, though not as strong.
He was dressed in the same clothes he always wore. His cloak half concealed the shirt, trousers and boots. Together with the black hair hanging lankly to his shoulders, their uniform darkness contrasted with his waxen features – though his pallor was interrupted by a dark splash around the mouth that was already dribbling down his chin.
The messenger hadn’t seen the master in this condition before, but it didn’t surprise him. Nothing did. It wasn’t his place to question or judge.
In front of him, the master swayed. His thigh and calf muscles fit snugly inside his trousers and were visibly straining as he steadied himself.
“I take it you have news.” His voice was sharp, the words a barked order. As he spoke, he moved stiffly towards the messenger, who nodded. “Tell me.” He stopped about ten feet away. He was a little over six feet tall, so his eyes, peering expectantly from the long, narrow face, were level with the messenger’s.
The messenger lowered his head and closed his eyes. In the highly unlikely event anyone should pass by, there would’ve been no indication of any communication. Nevertheless, there was a dialogue.
“The runners have stopped, Master. The home of a man and boy.”
“Is it the place we’ve been waiting for?”
“We sense a purpose to this visit.”
“Could the sister be there?”
“It’s not a likely hiding place.”
“They’re always the best places to hide.”
“As always, you are right, Master…”
There was a long pause as the master bowed his head thoughtfully. Finally, he asked: “How long will it take me to reach this place?”
The messenger glanced at the horses. The distance would be challenging for them.
“At least ten days.”
The master looked away, his gaze apparently falling on the horses before turning to the slumbering beast. A few more reflective moments passed.
“I might be able to get there sooner,” he said at last. “Go back to the others. If there is a purpose to this place, I’ll need reports more regularly. I take it the watchers are focusing on the runners?”
“Those are your instructions.”
“But some will remain at the cottage?”
“As they have before.”
“Good. Make sure a messenger is sent at sunset, noon and sunrise from each group. Let’s not take any chances.”
The messenger raised his head and opened his eyes. The master nodded: their conversation was over. It was time to follow his new orders. Bending his legs slightly, the messenger launched himself from the branch on which he’d been standing. His wings extended and began to beat, lifting him rapidly above the tree line. He wheeled overhead and turned back towards the forest that lay many miles away.
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