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Chapter One - Life's Little Lessons

This time I'm going to die.

Teeth flashed before his eyes. Fur covered muscle pinned him down. He shielded his face and rolled over trying to protect himself. He could feel hot breath. A scream passed his lips. This only seemed to drive the beasts on. He felt the seams in his tunic give, the last strips of dried meat falling as the seams of his pocket tore. He lay there, forgotten. The two hounds fell on their newly-freed prizes.

“If you were a wolf that would have been a fine lesson,” his father called out.

“Ast! Cuz! To me!”

Ghile kept his face hidden in the grass as the two white Valehounds trotted to his father. He hesitated a moment to gather himself. Rising, he wiped his face along a soiled sleeve, trying to remove the dirt and hopefully the tears as well.

“I'm sorry,” he winced, a fresh cut on his mouth. Ast and Cuz reached his father and sat obediently to either side. Ghile glared at them.

There was so much more Ghile wanted to say. Those hounds always did their best to embarrass him. It was as if they were trying to prove he would never be as good as Adon. How he missed his older brother. He knew better than mention Adon. The loss still hung heavy on his father. Ghile could feel the weight of it between them, especially during these lessons.

“Don't just stand there staring at them like it's their fault. Gather those scraps and try again,” Ecrec said.

His father stabbed the tip of his spear into the ground, then reached down and patted the two. Even sitting, their heads rose above his waist. Valehounds were bred to be big. The people of the Cradle used them to protect their flocks and homes. The wolves of the surrounding mountains would make quick work of anything less.

“Ecrec, you taskmaster. The boy was almost devoured by your beasts. I should think such a battle would earn him a rest,” Toren said, giving Ghile a sidelong wink.

His uncle was always quick to smile or find humor in something. Uncle Toren was the light to his father's shadow. Father always seemed so serious, always wore a frown behind that dark beard. Ghile sometimes found it hard to believe the two were brothers. But past the different expressions was the same thin, sharp nose and high cheekbones.

Ghile was thankful that his uncle had come down from the mountains for one of his visits. Uncle Toren's presence helped draw away some of his father's wrath.

“He has to learn, little brother,” Ecrec said. He crossed his arms over his thick chest, leaving little doubt as to whether Ghile would get a rest. “He has seen fourteen years and is of age. He is not a child any longer. He takes the test this season. How will he fare? He cannot even command the respect of the hounds. He needs to be ready,” Ecrec said. He did not look at his brother as he spoke, but stared at Ghile.

 Avoiding his father's eyes, Ghile looked past the wall where his uncle relaxed. Their flock grazed stoically on the other side of the low wall, the pink of their skin barely visible from the early spring shearing. The snow white lambs frolicked near the ewes, tails wagging.

As a sheepherder, the hounds should have been obeying his commands, not knocking him to the ground and taking their rewards by force. This was just one of the many tasks he regularly failed at. His brother had always made these lessons seem so easy.

With the ending of spring, his family would soon travel down the valley to Lakeside where he and other boys from the hamlet would take their test of manhood. All the people of the Cradle gathered in Lakeside for the festival and the test.

He had often looked forward to these trips in the past. There was food and games. He remembered as a youth watching from beside his mother as Adon took his test. Adon had returned the next morning as a man.

He might even have been chosen to become a fang, a warrior trained in wood lore and tasked to protect the valley, like Uncle Toren. That is, if Adon had not been culled by the dwarves. Ghile could still see his brother being escorted into the Bastion in Lakeside. That was the last time he ever saw his brother.

He gathered the few remaining strips of meat from the grass. He went to place them in his now-torn pocket. Ghile sighed. His mother had just repaired his tunic the day before last. She would not be happy.

Holding the strips of meat in his hands, Ghile began trudging through the field to put some distance between him and the two hounds. A cool spring wind gusted up the valley, giving him an icy push. Ghile took in the fresh air, thankful for it. When the wind was still, clouds bunched together before the mountains, dumping rain on the valley. Luckily, there were no such clouds today.

There was a clear view of the snow-tipped mountains that stabbed into the sky around Upper Vale. The tallest of them stood like a dark guardian over the rest. It even jutted into the valley as if it were too important to just surround it like the others. It was this one worn and pockmarked mountain, known as the Horn, which separated Upper and Lower Vale.

Ghile looked farther up the valley towards his home, seeking something other than the stark ugliness of the Horn. The browns and yellows of the thatched roofs and timber palisade of Last Hamlet looked like driftwood on a lake of green. The winds set the grass rippling, only adding to the illusion. The winds raced past him and up the valley along the rolling hills and scattered outcroppings of gray rock.

His people called their sheltered home the Cradle of the Gods. How strange a race cursed by the gods should reside in a place named for their birth.

He stopped and turned. He rose to the tips of his toes and peered down the valley past the others. On a good day, he could just make out the glowing blue waters of Crystal Lake.

He knew his father's patience would be wearing thin, but he sought anything that would delay the rest of this lesson. He spotted two figures making their way up beside a squat stone wall, a pack-laden mule in tow.

The one in front was older and slightly bent. His stark white hair obvious even from this distance. The other young, with a swaggering gait. Ghile pointed and almost leaped with excitement.

“Father! Uncle! Look! It's Sorcerer Almoriz,” he shouted down to them.

Ecrec and Toren both turned and looked down the valley. Ghile waited, his eyes darting from the two approaching figures to his father. He looked to his uncle for help.

“Well, are you going to give the boy his leave or wait ’til he bursts?” Toren said.

“I best go tell Elana and the others. The women will have our ears if we don't give them warning.” Not waiting for an answer, Toren pushed himself up off the wall and grabbed his bow.

Ecrec scratched his beard and glanced down at the hounds still at his side. “To the flock, boys. We must find some old ones. We'll be having mutton tonight.”

He hadn't finished the statement before the hounds darted forward and leaped the stone wall, their shaggy white shapes cutting through the sheared flock. In winter, it would be hard for a predator to see the sheep's guardians before it was too late.

Ghile needed no further urging, already running down the field past his father and uncle. He had wanted something to delay his lessons. He couldn't have hoped for anything as exciting as a visit from the Sorcerer of Whispering Rock.

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