Derek wasn’t sure why he’d reacted when he heard the sound of the knocker echo through the house. He lifted his lamp and walked down from his room on the third floor, but stopped when he realised it was Deaton answering the door. Derek stood hidden behind the corner on the landing at the top of the first-floor stairs, and watched. The weather outside was wild enough to curl in around the protective edges of the stoop. The lanterns in the entryway flickered with the wind, but didn’t go out.
The person at the door had wide shoulders and stood taller than Deaton by a head at least. Derek should not assume, but something about the way the person stood said the visitor was a man. The cloak and hood wrapped around him was sodden and bulged over his travelling satchel, giving him an almost grotesque silhouette.
Deaton’s voice was clear, but quiet enough that over the sound of the storm outside most of the others in the house wouldn’t be able to hear his words.
“I’m afraid you’ve arrived between Trials.” Derek blinked at that, the scent of the rain was strong, but he’d not thought it thick enough to hide the scent of a stranger-Mage. “There will be another in a se'nnight. You’ll find board in the town until then.”
The man in the doorway flicked back his hood, and the movement let Derek see the Mage-marks on his hands and neck. His skin was the color of milk still thick with cream, and his cheeks were rosy with the cold. His dark-brown hair curled down around his ears and away from his face, and his eyelashes were long enough to look as if they could do the same. The man's eyes were close to a Beta Wolf’s in color and brightness.
“Mage-Master,” the stranger said as he bowed his head to Deaton. “I am afraid you have me at a loss. I have not come in the hope of Trials, I am simply a traveler seeking shelter for the night.” His words were as clear as Deaton’s, but there was a melody to his accent that Derek could not place. “I had planned to stop in Beacon Valley for the night, but the storm grew far stronger as I reached the top of the hill, and I watched trees falling across the road because of the wind and lightning.” He tilted his head towards where Derek knew there were runes of protection carved into the door. “I’d not ask to enter a ‘Wolves’ Den without introduction, of course, but perhaps there is a barn or other outbuilding I can take shelter in?”
Deaton glanced up at the runes, making his movement obvious, and then looked back at the man in front of him. Derek knew that Deaton’s stare was one of strength, yet the stranger did not flinch. “I am Deaton, Mage Four and Six Druid. I am aligned with and serve this House of Hale. You are?”
The young man—Derek could see now that he was of an age somewhere between his own and his younger sister Cora’s—tilted his head to the side and looked at the tattoos on Deaton’s temple and neck. He stood straight again and looked down at Deaton’s proffered wrists.
He lifted his head straight then said, “Well met, Mage-Druid. I am Stilinski, Mage Five and Eight Spark.” A far different magic to Deaton’s, more primal, and stronger. Derek had never met a Spark. “I hail from the House Stilinski, we are allied with the Martins and Delgados.” The stranger’s name and House were unfamiliar, but the names of his allies were ones Derek had heard before. “I am, as yet, unaligned.”
The stranger-Mage, Stilinski, turned his head to the side and Deaton tipped his own so he could see. Derek stopped himself from huffing aloud. He could not read the tattoos of a Mage, so it did not matter that they were on the side he could not see.
The Mage-Spark turned his head a little further, and Derek could see more of his flesh, and the frustration he felt changed in flavor. There was a heat low in his belly, and he found himself breathing harder in an effort to catch some of the exposed skin’s scent.
Derek counted to ten as Deaton inspected the man's presented wrists, and pushed down the sudden desire to lick at the fine skin being shown.
Deaton nodded in the way he often did when he knew something others didn’t.
“Well met, Mage-Spark. I am unaware of your House, but I have had fair dealings with both the Martins and Delgados. I am sure our Mistress-Alpha will agree to providing you with both bed and hospitality, especially on such a night. I have one last question for you before I summon her, however.” Derek stepped back a little, losing his line of sight, but able to listen still. “Have you a specific destination in mind, or do you Wander?”
The Mage-Spark’s laughter was light and unexpected, and Derek couldn’t help the slight rumble in his own chest in response. “I do indeed Wander, Mage-Druid. I have been on the road for three full seasons, but had not, until just three weeks ago, felt a strong Heed in one direction.”
Derek heard Deaton step back and allow the man through to the landing. The winds outside had settled somewhat, but the rain was still falling heavily. Deaton closed the door and then all Derek could hear was the two Mages breathing, and the crackling of the fire in the room behind him.
Deaton walked down the hall, and Derek listened as Mage-Spark Stilinski removed his cloak and sat his travel-sack on the floor, then muttered a few words. The scent of his magic was clear, now. It was strong and sweet, and Derek would have worried a moment at the fact that he didn’t automatically recoil at the strange power, if the smell was not so much like honeyed-mead and spices that his stomach growled and caused their visitor to speak out.
“Greetings!” The Mage did not sound, or smell, concerned at all. There was a touch of laughter in his voice, and the tang of humour in his scent. “I’d like the chance to address you properly, sir. I feel I am at a disadvantage, however. You heard my introductions, but other than your being a Wolf of the House Hale, I know nothing of you.”
Derek felt his heart-rate rise, and pressed his back into the wall and knew his eyes were shining red. Derek could have sworn he’d kept himself from sight, and the Mage-Spark had shown no sign that he’d known someone was watching.
“It would be improper, Mage-Spark.” In his stress, Derek hadn’t noticed his mother’s footsteps. Her voice was a welcome sound. “I’m afraid I’ll have to insist you not interact with other members of my House this evening. Perhaps, on the morn, a more formal introduction can be arranged.”
The Mage-Spark apparently bowed, the sound of his voice following his movements up and down. “Of course, Mistress-Alpha Hale. My apologies for the presumption. I would not wish to displease you, even if you were not showing me the kindness that you have offered.”
“Well met, Mage Stilinski. It is our pleasure to offer what we are able. Deaton will escort you to one of our guest rooms. I’ve set one of the girls to build a fire for you, and heat the bed at least somewhat before you retire for the evening. There is not much left of supper, but the kitchen is warm and we’ll have a plate and something hot to drink for you shortly.”
There were a few more pleasantries and thank yous exchanged, and then Derek heard Deaton and the other Mage walk in the direction of the kitchen, and the unmistakeable sound of his mother’s footsteps approaching on the stairs.
He thought of standing up straight, but decided that having the wall support him for a little longer was preferable. Derek had never been called a coward, nor weak, but he felt both at this moment. His mother’s gaze did nothing to allay his fears.
“I’d ask what you are doing skulking at the top of the stairs, but from the look on your face I’m not sure you’d be able to tell me.” She reached a hand out and cupped his chin and Derek leaned into it gladly. “Did you hear them talking and come to investigate, or?”
Derek shook his head as much as he could without shaking free of her hand. “No. The Mage-Spark knocked. I heard the sound and came to see who would be at the door on a night as bleak as this.”
Her face was blank, except for the elevation of one completely incredulous eyebrow. “You heard the door knocker? It is strange that I did not. If you’d been sitting with Deaton in the parlor, only yards away from the door, perhaps. Deaton himself did not hear it. Instead he felt the young man approaching. The Mage’s magic is strong enough that it apparently precedes him.”
Derek knew his face must be showing his confusion. “I was…” He was uncertain of what he should say.
“That, my sweet, and the fact that the elements seem to have colluded to bring him to us tonight, were enough to make Deaton decide we should Trial the young man.” She stroked his skin and Derek luxuriated in the feeling of his cheek in her hand, the scent from her wrist comforting and familiar. “The Mage-Spark first felt a pull in one direction during the testing of the last set of hopefuls. It’s possible it was the first time he was physically close enough to experience the call.”
“That was three weeks ago. If he’s stayed not more than a day in each town he’s lodged in, then…” Derek swallowed. Only two or three of the twenty-four hopefuls they’d so far tested had shown anything of a calling to him. Most could not feel his pull at all and one had felt a repellence of sorts. The idea that a Mage might have felt the Heed from that far away was astonishing, if not a little frightening.
“Deaton was Wandering when he felt the pull to me. He was a full se'nnight’s walk from here. We will do well to remember that as Mage Stilinski is a Spark, his ability to feel such things is naturally stronger.” She pushed her hand back into his hair, pushing it off his face and showing his eyes. They probably looked wide and worried.. “His is a fiercer power, more untamed. Some would say one far more suitable to a ‘Wolf than the ordered magics of a Druid.”
Derek knew this. He had read the texts about the different kinds of magic in preparation for the Trials. He was not wild or untamed, however. Both of his sisters were more likely than him to be called so. Derek liked his books and sketching and quiet contemplation.
“I am hardly a ferocious warrior ‘Wolf, Mother.”
Her laughter was warm. “That you are not, my sweet. Yet, you are an Alpha still, and in need of your Emissary. Perhaps it is your quiet soul and his untamed nature together that might make you a good pair.” She ran her hand down his arm and took his hand. “And, more than that, this would likely solve your other issue. A Spark’s Mage-Match is rarely one unconsummated, and I know how you loathe the idea of Courting.”
Derek’s face must have glowed pink with embarrassment, even in the lamp light. His mother did not tease him for it, however. She waited, and Derek knew he should answer the question she’d not actually asked, no matter how mortifying speaking aloud of it might be.
“He.” Derek was so very, very grateful that neither Laura or Cora had come to investigate the noise on the landing, and he would offer the Gods extra thanks in his prayers that his Uncle Peter had not decided to visit the house this evening. “The Mage-Spark is,” Derek thought of the scent of the man’s magic and the line of his throat and the color of his eyes and lips, “not unattractive.”
“High praise from you, indeed, my sweet.” She leaned in and rubbed her nose along his, and placed a goodnight kiss as high on his brow as she could reach. “It is long past the time for you to be abed. The Mage is likely now fed and ready to rest himself. We’ll see then, with the sun, how his sleep and dreams faired.”
Derek returned his mother’s kiss and walked back up to his own chambers. He felt a disquiet at settling into his bed in a way he’d never known before. He’d slept in the same space for all of his life that he could remember, but this was the first time he’d not felt right doing so.
He knew, when the sun first hit his face, wide and warm, that the storms of the evening before were over. Derek stretched and counted all his fingers and toes and then went to kneel in front of his chamber’s small altar to offer thanks to the Gods. As he went through the task he reminded himself that They would see this day right, no matter what the outcome of their surprise visitor’s night.
It was, perhaps, too early to make his way to the kitchen, but when he opened his window a little he could hear that Cook and her lot were already busy. He’d at least have company if he waited down there.
His mother stopped him straight, just before he reached his destination, however.
“You are not dressed well enough to greet our visitor, my sweet. Go back upstairs and find something more dignified than yesterday’s clothes, and when you come back, you’ll go straight to the dining room. The Mage-Spark’s magic was enough to wake the whole house it seems. We will all be eating together.”
He did what he was told, no matter how curious he was to see just who the whole house was. Laura was usually late enough to break her fast that she only got the scrapings from the pot. When Derek returned—wearing something that although not his best was nigh to it—he found that even she was awake and chatting to their father as if it was six in the evening, not the morn.
“Take the seat next to your mother, Derek. Our guest will join us soon, I’m sure.” Deaton smiled, a rare sight, and reached for the water jar to fill his mug. “I believe that today we will have something to celebrate.”
They smelled him before they saw him. They did not, even a room full of ‘Wolves, half of them Alphas, hear him at all.
“Greetings and good morn. I was directed here by those in the kitchen. May I join you?” The Mage was wearing a light cloak neater than Derek would have thought it possible to fit into a small traveling sack, but his hair was so mussed that it looked as if it had not seen a comb in weeks.
Deaton smiled wider and Laura and Cora giggled at each other. Derek knew the sound to be one that meant they’d be gossiping about the young man and how handsome he was as soon as they were out of earshot. Derek could not blame them, the bright light of the morning did nothing to diminish the beauty of his eyes or skin or mouth or… Derek truly hoped the trial’s outcome had been in his favor.
“Of course,” Derek’s mother said, her smile welcoming, yet not quite as alarmingly wide as Deaton’s. “Please.” She gestured to the empty place beside Derek, and in the two steps it took for them to be next to each other, Derek knew what, or who, his future would be. He breathed in and tried to understand all that the man’s scent was telling him, but knew only the one thing it could say that was important.
“That is,” the Mage-Spark breathed a heavy sigh of relief as he sat, “far, far better.” He placed his hands in front of him and rubbed them lightly over his legs, then stilled with them in place before he turned to Derek, wide-eyed and bright, and said, “I have slept on boats and in barns, on rocky hillsides and damp caves, and yet in a warm, soft bed, I’ve just had the worst night’s rest of my life. The pull to you was...” He swallowed. “I am Mieczysław Hubert Przemysław Stilinski, Mage Five and Eight Spark. I am here to Heed your call and pledge my service to your House and name, and myself to you, ‘Wolf. Do you accept my Match?”
His mouth stilled, but his eyes flicked back and forth across Derek’s face. The table was silent, and Derek would not have been surprised to find that all of them had stopped breathing.
Derek had not, in any of his wildest surmisings, considered that he’d be making his Mage-Match pledge while sitting in front of porridge and honey, but every part of himself, ‘Wolf and Man alike, was certain.
“I am Theoderek Saxton Hale, Alpha Wolf. It was I who started the call.” He was glad he wasn’t yet actually eating his porridge, as he wasn’t sure if he’d have been able to drop the spoon. His hand was, surprisingly, not shaking as he extended it the small distance between them. “I thank you for Heeding it. I, both ‘Wolf and Man, accept your Match.”
The Mage-Spark’s skin was hot against his own as their palms slid together, and when they sighed in relief, the table erupted in shouts and howls of joy.
“Oh, thank the Gods.” The strength of the Mage’s grip shocked Derek, but it was welcome. “I would have gone mad if I’d had to spend another night with a wall or more between us. I’ve seen you in my dreams for most of my life, Theoderek Saxton Hale.” His smile was wider and brighter and far more appealing than Deaton’s. “Please call me Stiles.”