“Go!” She shoved him when he didn’t move immediately. His feet caught up with his brain as he turned to run, her last word echoing in his mind.
Dale burst out of the meadow, wishing he hadn’t followed Mauve when he caught her sneaking out. It couldn’t be helped now, he supposed. All he could do was put as much distance between himself and whatever thing Mauve had found.
Dale skidded to a stop and turned around, grumbling under his breath about what a jerk he was for leaving Mauve behind. He should go and rescue her. He owed it to her. If he hadn’t been skulking around behind her, that creature wouldn’t have spotted her. For all he knew, she could be ripped to shreds by now, but he needed to go and take the chance that he could still help.
He moved back toward the meadow, his sensible inner voice asking what he expected to be able to do. Mauve was an experienced hunter, one who was proficient with both a bow and a spear. She was capable at handling herself, much more capable than Dale was. All he could do was help out in the kitchens by mopping the floors, taking out the trash, and occasionally skinning a carcass.
Dale took out his small, skinning knife, fully prepared to stupidly ignore that sensible inner voice. He’ll probably be dead for doing so, but at least none of the other kitchen aids would be able to call him a coward any longer.
Stupid, yes, but not a coward.
He retraced his steps, finding simple clues as to where he crashed through the small woods that were a prequel to the meadow, and was soon sneaking around the edge of the meadow once more. There was Mauve, facing down the monster. It was as large as a bear with a wolf’s snarl and a dark lion’s mane framing its head. Dale had never seen anything like it, and if Mauve had, she didn’t show it. She was standing tall and proud, her spear in her left hand, staring squarely into the monster’s eyes. The pair was at a standstill, and Dale gripped the handle of his knife tight enough to turn his knuckles white.
Three… Two… One…!
With what he hoped was a fierce battle cry, Dale exploded from the woods and ran toward the monster with his knife poised to plunge into the beast’s head. He may have even been able to do it, too, if Mauve hadn’t stuck out her spear handle and tripped him. With a graceless flop, Dale face-planted into the tall grass, sliding to a stop right by the beast’s paws.
“I told ya to go.” Mauve’s growl sounded scarier than whatever sounds Dale could imagine the monster making as the hunter grabbed Dale by the shoulder to haul him to his feet. Mauve was right in his face, her eyes narrowed into a glare so dangerous that Dale was surprised she hadn’t impaled him with her spear already. “What did you come back for?”
“I, uh…” Dale realized that he had dropped his skinning knife somewhere when he tumbled. “I couldn’t leave you by yourself. I wanted to help! I wanted—Why are we still alive?” He glanced over at the monster, which was waiting patiently for Mauve to stop scolding Dale.
Mauve rolled her eyes and gestured to the beast. “This is Sage.”
“It has a name?”
“He has a name,” Mauve corrected. Dale turned to fully look at the beast, and Sage bowed his head in a greeting to the kitchen aid.
“You named him?” Dale asked, his voice cracking in a disbelieving squawk. “The master is not going to allow you to keep a pet, Mauve–”
I am no pet.
Dale jumped at the deep tone that had shoved the sensible voice out of his head. His eyes would fall out of his skull if he could widen them any further. “Did… Did you just–?”
Sage nodded. Yes. You human minds are quite simple to penetrate.
“Can you not do that?” Dale asked.
Sage’s lips curled back in a terrifying smile. I would not be able to communicate with you otherwise.
“Sage got separated from his tribe during that last storm we had,” Mauve said. “The rain caused the landslides around the mountain, cutting off the regular passes.”
Dale glanced back and forth between Mauve and Sage. “Okay… And…?”
“And I volunteered to help Sage find a way through,” Mauve said.
“Really?” Dale blinked then smiled. “That’s great, Mauve. I’m glad that the master is letting you do that–”
“The master knows nothing of this,” Mauve said, her voice as sharp as her gaze. “He will know nothing of this. Understood?”
Dale shook his head. “No, not understood at all! How are you going to help this beast—Uh, I mean, Sage with something like this without the master giving his permission?”
“I don’t mean to come back, Dale.” Her voice was resigned, almost apologetic.
“You don’t know what’s out there,” Dale argued, gesturing in the vague directions of the mountains. “How are you going to survive?”
“I’m going to take my chances,” Mauve said. “I’m a hunter. I can take care of myself, Dale. Whatever I don’t know about the wilderness, I will learn. I don’t want to be stuck behind a master’s walls anymore.”
Worry not for your friend, Sage said, capturing Dale’s attention. My tribe is honorable. We will aid Lady Mauve as thanks for her helping me to return home.
“Splendid,” Dale deadpanned. He rubbed the back of his head. “Mauve, I don’t like this plan…”
“If you had actually listened to me like you were supposed to,” Mauve said, “you wouldn’t have found out about it.”
“So you were just going to up and leave without saying good-bye?” he asked. She clamped her mouth shut and cast her gaze downward. “That’s what I thought.”
“I would have left a note or something–”
“I would have gone after you,” Dale said. “I know I’m annoying to you, like the brother you never wanted, but you’re my best friend in this place.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re not that annoying,” she said. “Unlike me, you actually have a chance to get a better life here. A kitchen aid today, the head of the kitchen staff tomorrow. I’ve heard our superiors talk about you, Dale. You’re obedient, you keep your head down, and you’re organized and friendly enough so the other aids don’t have a problem listening to you.”
Dale chuckled humorlessly. “Everything you do not want in a man.”
“Dale, I have nowhere else to go,” Mauve continued. “I came here to be trained as a hunter, and that’s it.”
“You chose that.”
“I thought it would give me more freedom in my life,” she said, “but I was wrong. I want to go out of the mansion grounds and to explore what else the world has to offer. Going with Sage gives me that chance, and I’ll be helpful to someone else than just as Master Jefferson’s spearhead.
“Please, Dale.” Mauve’s voice turned soft. “I need to live my own life. Please keep this to yourself and let me go.”
Dale took a deep breath and, ultimately, shook his head. “Mauve, listen,” he said. “If you leave, I can’t stay here, not with everything I know now. The master is going to look to me first after your disappearance is discovered, and I can’t lie. You know I can’t, I’m awful at it. Think of this, too. If I, a mere kitchen aid, was able to follow a brilliant hunter like yourself, who’s to say one of Master Jefferson’s guards can’t do the same? They could be hiding out in these woods right now.”
Some of the color drained from Mauve’s face, but Sage put his nose up in the air. I smell no one else besides us, if that is any comfort.
“Still,” Dale said, “it’s possible.” He looked to the hunter, seeing her bite her bottom lip and glancing off to the side, and Dale was satisfied that she was at least thinking about his words. “Mauve, I’m sorry, but you can’t leave.”
Why not accompany us? Sage said. Mauve looked up at the beast and Dale saw the excited sparkle in her eyes. Dale, on the other hand, suddenly felt cold.
“Dale, would you?” Mauve asked. “I know you could have a future here, but I wouldn’t want you to be in any danger because of me.”
“I, uh…” Dale took a step backwards. “It’s safe here–”
“And suffocating,” Mauve said. “There’s a whole world out there, Dale. Don’t you want to see it?”
“Not really,” Dale said. She sighed, and looked at Sage as if he could help.
Lady Mauve has promised to help me, the beast said, and I do not expect her to go back on her word. It would be simple for you to come with us. After all, mates should not be separated.
“What?” Mauve raised an eyebrow at Sage, and the beast looked at her with a similar expression.
Was that the incorrect term? Sage asked. With his worry for you, I had presumed—
“We’re not together like that,” Mauve said gently as Dale hoped the flush on his face would disappear soon from that blunder.
Nevertheless, the beast said, he obviously cares for you, and I doubt that he would give you away intentionally, Lady Mauve. Sage’s piercing gaze looked back at Dale, and the beast stood up to his full, imposing height. Is that not correct, Sir Dale?
Dale swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. “Yes, uh, no… I mean, that’s right, I won’t give Mauve away on purpose, but…” He coughed. “I know me. I can’t lie. I’m horrible at it, and the master knows that we’re friends, and he’d come to me first, I’m sure–”
It is settled, then. Sage sat back down. You will accompany us across the mountain range.
Dale found himself nodding. “Okay.”