Hide and Seek

Title: Hide and Seek
Time Period: April 12, 135 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

Summary: A search party makes a different kind of find.

Spring afternoons on the moorland outside Dornie can mean one of two things: clear, bright skies and dappled sunshine, or misting rain that clings to everything in touches. Today, the latter makes tracking the missing gelding more difficult than the small search party would probably like, but it's the kind of challenge that makes their line of work all that more rewarding when and if it's overcome.

The fragrant heather that grows on the hills is made all the more pungent by the damp, and while the scent isn't unpleasant, it is strong — it overpowers the wet earth churning under their horse's hooves, and the aroma of grassy clumps of manure they leave behind them. Silver birches rise up from the rocky landscape, their bark the colour of sun-bleached bone, and contrast with the moss-covered oaks, which are behemoths in comparison to the pines that grow around them.

Edmund Rowntree owns a lot of land, some of it with veins of wood running through it like this one. He and Cas will be lucky if they're home before dark.

With or without the gelding.

It will be another few seasons gone by before Edmund trusts his son on a horse outside of somewhere fenced. A leading rope, perhaps, but not while there's an objective to complete beyond simple patrol. Still, Ariel gets to ride along, placed into the saddle to share the reins further along than Edmund's bigger hands, and though riding double is no way to teach a boy to ride, it does chip away at any inherent fear of the animals he may have, and allows him to see the land they own, and come to know it the way Edmund and Duncan know it. He steers the speckled mare over where a stream has dwindled to damp rocks and mud, but dwells during rainier weeks, moving towards the mark where he told Cas to meet him, going separate to cover more ground.

He, personally, has yet to see hide nor hair of the gelding that got loose.

It seems that the young man who split away has already been at the appointed place for a few moments. At least long enough to dismount and step over to the stream, knelt down to fill a canteen again with cool spring water, with the lead rope of the gelding he's riding wrapped around his arm.

At the sound of the approaching doubled up horse, he looks up from a the water he's swishing around in the canteen, putting something away into his pocket.

"I haven't— haven't seen any traces still." The stuttering and repeating this time is caused by a cough to clear his throat. "The rain isn't helping much," he says with a tense laugh, before he allows himself a generous swig from his canteen setting it down on his side, to hang from a strap around his shoulder. As he steps back to his gelding, the one he's been allowed to ride, he stops to scratch behind his ear. But doesn't talk to the horse this time. In fact he's been rather quiet by his standards today.

Aislinn takes the boy out onto the heath to check their snares for rabbits sometimes, and into the woods to watch the otters splashing in the stream in between lessons on which plants are edible, and which aren't, which have the power to heal and which will kill him if he touches them before putting his fingers near his mouth. But it's with his father that Ariel sees the most of Dornie, and it's outings like these that he looks forward to the most.

He can visit his mother at the apothecary any time, after all. The same cannot be said of Edmund, whose work takes him further than most children his age are able to travel on foot.

Although he hasn't forgotten the incident with the pistol, enough time has passed that he seems to; he no longer avoids Edmund's eyes or shrinks away when he hears his voice starting to get loud.

It is behind them, as it should be.

"We didn't find him either," Ariel announces. "Maybe he got ate."

"Maybe," Edmund says, breaking his squinting study from Cas to twist a look around them. "But there's more forest than just this, aye? And there's light left in the day." He's had two horses just disappear in his life. Once was when the herd broke when they were steering them down from the north, and he was still young, then. Another, an escaped stallion that was never seen or heard of again, not even its rotting corpse, and that one always bothered him.

He steers the mare around. "Back on your saddle," he says, voice curt, wiping the gathered rainwater from his eyes. "We'll follow the river 'til we reach Gilroy's paddocks, then circle back inland and go home."

"We'll find him, kid— if I can survive a troll attack, I think the horse has a good chance," Cas says with a smile, dimpling his cheek, dark eyes focused on the kid rather than his boss for a moment. At least until he gets the order to mount again.

That smile falters, and he nods, running a hand over damp hair that slicks back more than normal, before he reaches to grab the damp pommel and pull himself up. With one foot in the stirups, he shifts the horse with the reins. And perhaps grateful that the mare is steered away some, and the rain streaming down his face helps mask the wince as he settles his weight down on the damp saddle.

"That way?" he says hoarsely as he turns the chestnut roan gelding— an obvious statement of direction.

On the other side of the stream, buried somewhere under the dense bushes of mauve, something bleats. Edmund immediately knows that it isn't the missing gelding; for one thing, in all his years he's never heard a horse make such a noise, and for another it sounds too small, too strangled to come from anything larger than the boy in the saddle in front of him.

Ariel hears it, too, and goes tense, tightening his grip on the reins so his hands become fists hiding in the shelter of his father's palms.

This is where Edmund would answer Cas, but instead, he turns to the sound of whatever it was through the bushes, holding up a hand to bid for quiet, the other loose and warm over Ariel's hand. Then, gently, he places Ariel's hands to grip the saddle horn as he himself quietly swings off the mare, taking up the reins from the ground. He doesn't want to leave Ariel behind, but nor does he want to lead the horse face first into something that might scare her; so he takes point on foot.

He also slides the pistol from his thigh holster, wrapping leather leads around his other hand, and starts forward. He doesn't bark any orders back at Cas, trusting him to do whatever is most sensible for himself.

At first it seems Cas didn't hear what everyone else heard, but when he does he twists on his saddle to look and clenches his jaw as he does. It could be the gelding heard it before he did, from the uncomfortable twitcing of his damp ears and the tail that swings around nervously, slapping the young man's leg with damp hair.

A soft whisper is all he says, touching the roan's neck as he tugs on the reins, tightening his legs, and moving up toward the boy upon the mare. He doesn't dismount, or even pull a belt knife, but he gets closer to the boy, glancing towards him worriedly.

The stream is shallow enough that Edmund and Cas can still cross it without needing to worry about anything except soaking their pants below the knee. In a few weeks, it will be so swollen with meltwater rushing down from the mountain, but for now—

"It sounds like a baby," says Ariel, his voice a thin whisper. He isn't a dull child, and while he's disobeying Edmund's implicit order to keep hushed, he at least makes an effort to respect his father's request.

As Edmund leads boy and mare up onto the other side of the bank, the heather a few paces ahead of him shudders and begins to tremble. Through the prickly foliage, he and Cas can see a coat of thick white fur with a texture like velvet and the curve of a slender neck that looks like it belongs to a too pale fawn.

It cries again.

Rather than rush into anything, Edmund stops, then tucks the gun away— for now and for the purposes of moving to collect Ariel off the back of the mare. "Tie these up," he tells Cas, at a mutter, once more taking his gun into his hand. "Then follow me 'round the other way. And you," he nudges Ariel to the left of him, so that Edmund will be between the child and the animal. "Stay close and quiet."

He waits until Cas has near completed that task, before he moves to circle around, keeping a distance so as to neither scare whatever is on the other side of the heather, nor get too close so that it harms him or his son.

With a soft grunt that he tries to stiffle by pressing his lips together, Cas climbs down off his saddle once again, pressing his hand against the damp horse for a few moments as if to steady him. Or himself.

It doesn't take too long for him to tie up the two horses side by side, a few soft whispers of encouragement. When he steps over to the boss' side, though, he seems to have picked up a broken branch next to where he tied the horses up.

Ariel stays close. He also stays quiet, as instructed, always half a step behind Edmund— which is difficult, because the heather swallows up his legs, making it hard to keep up with his father without getting tangled in it, but like most boys his age he's stubborn, resilient, and maybe it helps that he spends a lot of his time roughhousing and wrestling with Hush. Any snags that he encounters he quickly tugs himself free of, pressing forward to get a better look.

And look he does.

A moment later, he's ducking past Edmund and leaping headlong into the underbrush to grab the source of the noise around its middle and heft it up for the benefit of Cas and his father.

"Look, it is a baby!" he tells them. He's right, too. A little larger than the average Dornie barn cat, it fits easily in the child's arms even though that's clearly where it doesn't want to be, feebly twisting its head and muzzle away from the boy. The bleats turn to hoarse screams of alarm, and although the emaciated Stormbringer hatchling thrashes and struggles to free itself from Ariel's grasp, the only thing it succeeds in doing is making him wince when its tail slaps against his leg.

"He thinks you want to hit him with your stick," is his explanation for the baby dragon's behavior, spoken very matter-of-factly to Cas. That probably isn't true.

"Ariel," is a bark of frustration and a sort of paternal anger, the kind that comes laced with exasperation. Edmund shoves the pistol into Cas' hands with barely a second thought, covering the distance in two long strides, crouching down to grip the white, thrashing tail, another at the base of the animal's throat. "Y'never go an' pick up a wild creature like that, not even— put it down," he growls, all heightened tension because he knows what this thing is, and grows up to be, and what spawned it - the same creature that almost took his life, before his son was born.

So preoccupied with the creature his son is holding up, the boss may not notice the rather hilarious fumbling that happens with the pistol shoved at him. The stick falls first, almost disappearing into the thick underbrush, and he tries to catch it with his other hand, while his damp hand is having issues, and then a second later the pistol falls as well.

And for the sake of luckiness, it doesn't actually go off and shoot him in the foot.

Covering his face in his hands for a moment, he bends down and fumbles around to find it again, coming out holding the barrel instead of the handle, trying to brush off the dirt before the boss notices.

"Is that— what it looks like?" he asks awkwardly, looking unsure how to handle the pistol. But at least knowing which end would hurt and avoiding pointing that at anyone. Including himself.

Ariel surrenders the hatchling without a fight. It's the combination of his father's tone and the fact that he always yields up his finds to his mother when he and Colm bring them home — the only difference is that his finds tend to be birds with broken wings or orphaned fox cubs so close to death that they can't open their eyes, much less lift their heads (and it's always Colm who does the carrying for this very reason).

His blue eyes cloud over with guilt, uncertain of exactly what he's done wrong. "Don't hurt him," he pleads with Edmund even though what he means is: I'm sorry. "He's all bones, Da. Look at his ribs."

"Did I not tell ye to stay close? To stay quiet?"

But that anger was a flash in the pan, and his scolding is quieter, almost a hiss. Edmund's focus is quick to tug down to the dragon hatchling as he sets it down, a hand on the base of its neck in a sort of gentle firmness to keep it still, applying a farmer's pragmatism for all that there is a part of him urging to take his gun back from Cas and shoot it, shoot it now. He is simply keeping it still, obeying his son's wishes if only because his better instincts tell him to. "Aye, it is," he says to Cas, twisting around to glance. "Come here. Gimme that back too."

"I— yes, sir," Cas says quietly as he moves closer, stepping through as he tries to dust off the remander of his fumbling from the pistol before he holds it out to the boss. "Sorry, my… hands were wet," he tries to explain carefully, before he looks down at the tiny creature.

Who may look harmless now, but…

Eyes dart towards the kid, and his lips press together, briefly looking more guilty than he did over his fumbling with the pistol. "What're we going to do with… him?" he asks, motioning toward the creature.

The hatchling's tail thumps against the ground in an expression of displeasure, its eyes hooding feline at Edmund. It's stopped screaming, at least for the moment, cries replaced by a low, rumbling purr that originates from somewhere in the back of its throat.

Claws flex. Hindquarters wiggle. Abruptly, the hatchling chokes back a rasping sneeze.

"Mum says things happen for reasons," Ariel argues. "Maybe he's why the gelding run away — so we could find him."

And end 'him' before 'he' ends us, is what Edmund chooses not to tell his only just seven-year-old son. Once he's holstered his gun, he gently handles the dragon, then, rolling it onto its back to inspect it for injuries, but mostly just sees abandonment and starvation. But it gives him time to think.

"Y'ever heard of anyone rearing a dragon?" he asks of Cas, without looking up.

"I'm… not sure?" Cas says as he moves closer to the man and the animal, unable to avoid reaching out and touching the seven year old on the shoulder as if trying to offer him some support. "Maybe they could be? I mean there's women in town decended from Selkies and if seals can mate with a human who's to say a dragon can't be… raised to … uh…" He trails off.

What would someone even call it? Pet doesn't quite seem right.

"I think it's a good sign he's not trying to eat your fingers off, at least."

Ariel twists a grateful look over his shoulder at Cas, then flashes eyes that could belong to either his mother or his father — they're both so blue — back to Edmund. "Just 'til he's big enough to go off on his own," he says. "Stormbringers— they're winter fliers. He don't got nobody. Please?"

The answer was no, Cas.

Edmund takes a breath in like he's trying to get his patience back along with, you know, air, before he takes off his rain soaked jacket. The dragon is rolled into it, sleeves used to loosely tie it in without breaking anything but to keeps its feeble wings still, the leather proofed against scrabbling claws. He raises it again, and— offers it out to Ariel. "You'll carry it, while I ride us back to Dornie? If it drops, if you get bit, it'll be on you."

Perhaps no is what he should have said, but when Edmund wraps up the tiny dragon and hands it over to the boy, Cas is smiling widely, looking down at the boy as if trying to share his joy with the only other person who might feel it. It's not as if they're taking home the most dangerous pet imaginable…

Oh wait.

"You'll have to think of a name, too," he says to the kid with a wet slap on his shoulder. Probably not what the boss would have wanted out of his mouth either.

Ariel hugs the hatchling close to his chest, cradling it like an infant to show how much he's grown and matured in the last two minutes. He is Responsible enough to handle this. Responsible enough to come up with a good name too, he thinks.

"Promise, Da," he says, unable to keep from grinning with all his teeth.

There is no question who he inherited that from.