I was glad I wore my trousers tucked into my high boots, as the mud sucked at them with every step. It had been raining off and on for the past half moon. The leaves of the few evergreen oaks and parulm trees scattered throughout the forest dripped water, and twilight threw the woodland into a cold and eerie darkness. Cloak wrapped tightly around me and wings folded, I tried to ignore the drizzling chill brushing my fingers as I held my hands out in front of me. I scanned for Ustion’s footsteps, my energy flowing freely despite the cold.
Step by step, I circled the area to the left of the hunters’ cave at the foot of Moors Mountain, while my apprentice, Brem, did the same on the right side of the cave. Even with the floating lanterns hovering above us, I could find little trace of Ustion. There was plenty in the cave, and just outside, but the farther I moved away from the cave, the less I discovered. At this point, I’d be thrilled to pick up even the tiniest trace that would tell me where Ustion had walked off to. I muttered a prayer to Ma’terra, hoping something would turn up soon. Deeper into the forest, the search party bellowed every couple of paces.
Ustion, son of Ashyu and soon-to-be carpenter’s apprentice, had been staying with his father’s hunting group when he disappeared. It was the hunters’ tradition to take their older children with them once a turn for a break in routine. According to the hunters, Ustion had been doing fine—couldn’t shoot a rabbit even if it stood still, but made the best arrows—until three nights ago, when he and Ashyu had argued, and Ustion had walked away to blow off some steam. When he hadn’t returned that evening, Ashyu had assumed he’d gone home to sulk. At sixteen turns, Ustion was old enough to find his way back through the forest, but when the hunting group returned to the village earlier today, he hadn’t been home. He hadn’t been anywhere in the village.
Three nights was a long time for a stripling like him to be missing.
“Do you think we’ll find him soon, Master Kelnaht?”
Ashyu, a tall tree elf built like an oak, looked old in the flickering light of the lanterns. Lines were etched into his face, lines of worry, lines of regret. He’d been mumbling prayers since we started our search, staying close to Brem and me as we searched for traces. Every time we paused or bent down, he held his breath. His expression when we found nothing was heart-breaking.
“I hope so,” was all I could answer. Truth was, I had no idea. The lack of traces was alarming, the nearing darkness even more so. I hadn’t expected the search to take this long. We weren’t prepared to spend the night in the forest, and once the night creatures awoke, the fire would be needed for protection more than light. The sooner we found Ustion, the sooner we could all go home. I hoped Taruif wasn’t waiting up for me.
Grabbing some herbs from my pouch, I sprinkled them over my cold hands and rubbed them together to cleanse and protect them from the worst of the chill. When my hands started tingling, I took a deep breath, muttered a prayer to Ma’terra to guide us in our search, and renewed my focus. Hands extended, I felt my way through the rubble and the mud, moving farther and farther away from the cave. Every now and then, Brem and I met up in the middle, but we had nothing new to tell each other. Neither of us could find anything, and we were both reaching the limit of our powers.
In the end, I had no choice but to call it a night. We could barely see our hands in front of us, the wind had become fierce and close to freezing, and Brem and I needed to stop before we ran out of energy.
“No! You have to… You can’t…” Standing amidst his hunting group, Ashyu panted as he stamped his feet into the mud and swung his fists. “I’m not leaving. You have to find him. Now!”
I took a deep breath. “Look at your friends, Master Ashyu. You’ve all just returned from a quarter moon hunting trip. They need a good night’s rest.” I gestured at Brem and myself. “We need a good night’s rest to replenish our energy. We’ll restart our search in the morning and gather as many elves as we can to combine our energies. We will find your son.”
Ashyu sagged against a tree, disappointment and pain clear in his expression. Two of his group had to help him regain his balance before they could lead him back to the village. We walked in silence. I couldn’t stop myself from scanning the ground every couple of paces with what little energy I had left. Next to me, Brem did the same. A desperate act, or idle hope, maybe, but we’d never lost anyone in the forest before, and we weren’t planning on doing so now.
When I entered the village, Ianys stood waiting in the shadow of my dwelling, keeping out of sight until the last door in the village had closed. As soon as I reached him, his strong arms enveloped me, and I sagged against him. His warm lips against mine brought a relief I couldn’t express in words. Ianys knew me well. He wrapped his cloak around me, took my cold and wet hands in his, and led me to Taruif’s dwelling.