The Skulk

Devlyn Regan followed the trail past the fields of amaranth, the maroon stalks stretching as tall as him and waving gently in the morning breeze, and past the herb garden ringed by the golden-yellow blooms of the helichrysum, and toward the wood and metal coop. There, the paw prints danced around the edges of the wire that kept the pearl quails in and their predators out. Devlyn frowned.

Tending to the small birds had been his primary task since coming to the farm, their owner Sael having ordered him to feed and protect them. Their iridescent feathers in pale pinks and creamy whites ruffled at Devlyn’s approach, and they hopped around their coop with irritated chirps and low whistles that sounded like water trickling over rocks. Devlyn checked the latch of the gate and found it secure. He examined the small house the birds nested in overnight, with a wooden ramp giving them easy access, and saw nothing amiss. He circled around, hands feeling out corners and edges of the pen and toes tapping the ground for soft spots that could be burrows under the fence, and found nothing. Everything seemed secure.

Except that the paw prints traced Devlyn’s same path around the coop, yesterday’s rain making soft molds of each one. A single creature, as far as Devlyn could tell. A curious creature. A dangerous creature.

Devlyn followed the prints back to the edge of the farm where they disappeared into the woods beyond. He should tell Sael, he thought, but the idea sat acidic in his stomach. There really wasn’t anything to tell, was there? The quails seemed well and Sael was always so busy making salves and solutions, it would be a shame to disturb her work. Not to mention, scary. He spoke to her only when spoken to and kept as much distance as seemed appropriate for her servant.

Devlyn walked back toward the coop and around it, walking over the prints, obscuring them under his own. There was nothing left to report on after that. He briefly went inside the pen, carefully closing the gate behind him, and tossed seed and dried fruit around the yard which the quails pursued with excited hops. Then, he closed the gate securely again before walking back toward the house.

The surprisingly large home made of grey stone and sun-bleached wood loomed in front of him no less ominously than the day almost a moon ago when he was pushed toward it by his harried father. His father had not been a cruel man, just a poor one, and had been struggling to keep Devlyn and his younger siblings fed. And so, Devlyn was brought to Sael. Devlyn remembered being filled with dread as he walked up to the house, a scroll held tightly in his hand. He was one of only two people in his home who could even read it, his father being the other and the weaker reader. The scroll was from the Queen herself and dictated that Devlyn was the help Sael had requested.

Sael Eldrida, The Queen’s Apothecary. She was both older and younger than Devlyn had expected, her silver hair always bound up in braids that circled the top of her head like a crown while her strong frame and thick arms and legs suggested a youthfulness that didn’t seem to match. Devlyn had been expecting someone frail and bent, and was shocked at the energy, speed, and size of the Apothecary. She had looked Devlyn over that day with sharp green eyes, taking in the lankiness of his adolescent frame, the shabbiness of his loose-hanging clothes, the way his burnt-orange hair flopped pathetically to one side, and exhaled slowly.

“Very well,” she had said, and immediately put him to work. She woke him each day just as the rays of sunlight started to break up the darkness of night, and she sent him to bed just as that same darkness crept back over the edge of the forest that surrounded the farm. She barked orders at him in short bursts: “fetch that bucket,” “grind those seeds,” “chop those herbs.”

But, the pearl quails were his primary concern, Sael had told him. He’d never seen birds like them before, both familiar in shape and activity and foreign in color and song. They were a very rare breed, Sael told him, worth more than jewels. She didn’t say why, and Devlyn didn’t dare to press her for more information. In fact, he was unwilling to be in her presence more than necessary—he never forgot that she was a witch.

Still, he squared his shoulders as he pushed past the heavy wooden door of the house. Sael stood under a canopy of hanging herbs, a cacophony of scents filling the air around her—earthly and flowery, sharp and soft, medicinal and flavorful. Devlyn breathed it in with his usual enthusiasm, something about the mixture familiar to him even on his first day in the house, though he never could quite place it. Sael had his back to him as she carefully clipped bits off a bundle of herbs in her hands into a wooden bowl.

“How are the quails?” she asked, not turning to look at him.

“The birds are well. Still no eggs,” he reported, fighting a shaking in his voice.

It had been the same every day for almost a moon and it felt like a personal failing that the birds he tended so carefully didn’t produce.

But Sael just nodded.

“You will let me know the moment you see any,” she said, glancing only briefly toward him as she gathered up her bowl and one other bundle of herbs that Devlyn couldn’t quite recognize yet in their dried form, and moved toward the side of the house where both her chambers and workshop were. She entered her workshop, the metal-lined door thudding closed behind her. Devlyn breathed out the tension he’d been holding and went about his chores: adding logs to the fire always kept burning, sweeping up stray herbs from the floor, and taking buckets to fill at the well out front.

That evening, Devlyn checked the coop carefully and was relieved that there were no new tracks around it. In fact, the birds came running toward Devlyn and his basket of fruit and seed with something like friendliness, and he smiled as he entered the little house, back bent low. He methodically searched every nest as the birds ate, but no eggs had appeared during the day. Devlyn shrugged off his disappointment and patted the head of a nearby hen as though to reassure her he wasn’t mad at her lack of eggs. She wriggled away from his touch, but did not peck him, which made him grin.

The next morning came on damp and cold, and Devlyn pulled on a thick black cloak before heading out toward the coop still bleary-eyed and in a mood made sour by the weather. The dampness had made new mud, and in the new mud were new prints at the edges of the fence. Devlyn’s eyes quickly scanned the ground, the coop, the fence, and the few birds who had ventured from the warmth of their little house at the sound of his approach, looking for further signs of danger.

There! One perfect paw print, just inside the gate. One indented pad, four pointed toes, and four deep holes made by four sharp claws.

Devlyn rushed inside the gate as quickly as possible, counting the quails and searching out any sign of injury or abduction. The birds puffed and scattered, but they were all there, and each nest still empty of eggs. Devlyn searched the perimeter of the coop, pulling at the wire fencing, pushing against the wooden beams, looking for any possible way that any creature could get in or out. Then he went back to that single perfect paw print and stared. The gate was a snug fit, no gap along any edge, and the wires of the fence were shaped into holes too small to fit a paw through. It didn’t make any sense, and a dark fear rose up in Devlyn. What if the pearl quails had been producing eggs? And what if this creature had been coming in every night to steal them?

But how? There was no way in, and no way out, save for the latch on the gate, too high and complex for anything that didn’t have thumbs and human-height to manage. And yet, there was a paw print inside, and nests still empty, and the connection of the two took hold of Devlyn’s imagination.

He should tell Sael. But, he didn’t know what to tell her. His theory made no sense, and he feared that she would see his admittance as a failure to keep the pearl quails safe. Could he risk the witch’s wrath? Better to solve it on his own, and since the birds themselves remained unharmed, all that he would be admitting was that the eggs might be stolen. Might. He still could not be sure. Devlyn went nervously back to the large stone house, pulling his cloak tighter about himself with worry.

Sael took the news of no eggs with her usual silent acceptance, and Devlyn declined to tell her anything else, convinced her silence meant he’d made the right choice. Instead, his thoughts circled the mystery, trying to work out possibilities. What could be making the paw prints? Why would it steal eggs and not hens? And what could Devlyn possibly do to stop it?

When all his questions were exhausted, Devlyn started working out a plan instead.

After Sael sent him to bed at dusk, Devlyn didn’t change into night clothes and curl up under his thick quilts as he usually did. Instead, he waited until he could hear Sael retire, until there was no sound in the house at all. He opened his door slowly against the creek in the hinge, and waited to be sure Sael did not stir before moving as silently through the house as he could. He carefully lifted the large beam that secured the front door at night, and then he crept outside. He ducked behind shrubs at the edge of the house, and peered through the darkness toward the coop. The moon was not full above him, but fat and round enough to gleam against the metal wire and damp ground.

Devlyn kept as still as he could as the moments stretched on, his legs cramping beneath him. The light of the moon shifted as it continued its journey across the sky, and still Devlyn crouched, feet numb, hands stiff.

Finally, a movement at the edge of the amaranth field caught Devlyn’s eye, and he forced himself statue-still. A shadow slunk forward, body low to the ground, pointed nose twitching as it revealed itself to be a fox, pale fur silvered by the moonlight, bright eyes gleaming. Devlyn watched as the fox crept forward and then dashed with surprising speed to the edge of the garden. It seemed completely unbothered by the yellow helichrysum that was supposed to deter pests of its kind. Devlyn could feel excitement pump blood back into his hands and feet. This had to be the same fox that had been visiting the coop at night, and now Devlyn would see how it was getting in and if it was in fact stealing the quail eggs.

The fox moved cautiously forward, and paused with perfect stillness halfway to the coop, its body parallel to where Devlyn was hiding.

Then the fox turned its head and stared directly at him. Its jaw fell open, and tongue lolled out, as though it were laughing at him. Fear and frustration coursed through Devlyn, and he jumped up, waving his hands. The fox jumped back, but didn’t run away. Devlyn moved toward it, hands up to make himself bigger, and the fox pranced to the side, not the least bit afraid. Devlyn dashed forward. The fox dashed back. Devlyn lunged suddenly to the side, and the fox leapt the other direction, head down and front paws splayed out, playful.

“You won’t get the eggs!” Devlyn shouted. “Argg! Get away!”

The fox stood up tall, nose in the air, sniffing, and still unafraid. Devlyn ran toward it and, at the last moment, the fox dashed to the side. Devlyn chased it past the garden and lost sight of it as it disappeared among the rows of maroon amaranth. Shaking, Devlyn bent over, hands on his knees, and breathed deeply. He’d never seen a fox that didn’t run at the sight of a human. The ones on the edge of his father’s farm were skittish things, easily spooked. This one was not only unafraid, it seemed to be playing with him. He shook his head, a chill seeping through his clothes and raising bumps on his skin. He shook off his fear and headed back to the coop with new weariness.

His eyes couldn’t help but look inside the edges of the pen. Three more paw prints, creating a perfect triangle just below the ramp outside the quail’s house, greeted him. No creature, not even one with three legs, could make such a design. Each paw print looked deliberate, perfectly pressed into the mud. Devlyn rubbed his hands over his eyes and looked again, and again the prints were there, an unnatural arrangement. Devlyn didn’t bother going into the gate, counting the quails, or searching for eggs. It was too much. He felt defeated.

Instead, he went to wake Sael. What good was living with a witch if you couldn’t take supernatural things to her? Even if he was afraid of what she might say or do to him, he knew that what he was dealing with was beyond his skill to manage. Head hanging and damp hair sticking to his forehead, he made his way back to the house and slipped inside. He walked slowly to Sael’s chamber door, opposite her workshop, and took a deep breath. Then, he knocked.

Sael rose easily and came to her door shortly after Devlyn’s timid knock.

“Yes?” Her voice was calm and unreadable.

“It’s the quails,” Devlyn blurted out. Sael stared at him for a long moment over the light of the lantern in her hand, and then nodded. She asked no questions but followed as he led her through the house, outside, and to the coop.

“There was a fox, and I chased it, and when I came back….” His voice cracked slightly as he spoke and he pointed helplessly at the paw prints glowing under the light of the moon. Then he looked back up at Sael, full of apprehension about what the witch might do.

Sael began to laugh. It was a hearty, full-bellied laugh that shook her shoulders and the long braid of her silver hair which flowed down her back. She laughed for a long time as Devlyn stood near her, his weariness slowly giving way to annoyance, and then anger.

“What could possibly be so funny?” he demanded in a tone he had never used with her before.

Sael wiped tears from her eyes and turned toward him.

“It’s the skulk,” she said. “They’re playing with you.”

Devlyn shook his head. “The foxes are taking the eggs! They have to be! There haven’t been any, and I don’t know how they’ve been getting in, but nothing else makes sense. And I don’t understand what’s so funny about it!”

Sael shook her head, not unkindly, and gestured for Devlyn to follow her. He did, mute in his anger and a little shocked that she hadn’t yelled at him for his insubordination. She walked past the house and up a little hill on the other side. She led him to a spot at the base of an old oak tree, a hollow between its roots. Nestled inside was a small pile of flowers, each with two green stems ending in small bells of white petals clustered together in whorls.

“Moly,” she said softly. “In exchange for pearl quail eggs.”

Devlyn stared at the flowers in wonder, the light of the moon finding the white of the petals in a way that seemed impossible under the shadow of the tree. Moly, flower of the gods, said to be able to cure any ailment, even mortality itself.

“The foxes bring them?” he asked, unsure but starting to understand.

Sael nodded, satisfied with his conclusion.

“These are not your usual foxes, just as those are not usual quails. The skulk of these woods and I have an arrangement. They are clever, more clever than any other creature I know of, and so they can find the moly where others cannot, including myself. But of course, they want something in return. Pearl quail eggs are quite delicious.”

“I was never going to find any eggs,” Devlyn realized, almost sadly. Sael laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“Sometimes they will leave one or two behind,” she said, her eyes glinting. “Next time they do, I’ll let you keep one.” She bent then and gathered up the flowers, making a basket in the folds of her robe. “Chin up, young one. They wouldn’t play with you if they didn’t like you. There’s hope for you to become an apothecary yet.”

“Me?” Devlyn’s eyes went round like the moon above them. “No, I’m just supposed to help you, because the Queen said. And my family couldn’t afford to keep me, and I’m not strong enough to work the fields, and so they sent me away….” His voice cracked at the last word. Sael smiled, and there was a sadness and sweetness in it he had never seen in her before.

“My dear boy, you weren’t sent away. You were chosen.” She watched his face as he took in the news, and he wasn’t sure what she was reading, but she seemed satisfied enough to nod. “I wasn’t completely sure—but if the skulk are playing with you, then they’ll work with you. Yes, you are exactly who I hoped you’d be.” She turned then and headed back to the house. “Don’t dawdle,” she barked over her shoulder in a tone that made Devlyn jump and run after her. But it didn’t feel the same as before, a mean witch yelling at her servant. Because, Devlyn realized, he wasn’t her servant, but her apprentice.

Her apprentice. But how?

A memory drifted to mind then. There had been a visitor to his parents’ farm, hadn’t there, when he was young? A cloaked figure that stood and watched him at his play. He hadn’t remembered much of the visit, except that the smell coming off the figure was earthy and flowery, like an entire garden wafting toward him.

Or, like the hanging herbs that crowded the inside of Sael’s house. Devlyn grinned, finally recognizing why the house smelled so familiar.

Chosen! It had to have happened then, when he was still small. Maybe that was why his parents allowed him to learn to read. Maybe that was why he was allowed time with his scrolls instead of in the fields.

Devlyn scurried along the path, following that same scent from his childhood back toward the house that now looked less ominous somehow, less large.

He paused before following his mentor into his home, turning to look back, his eyes searching and finding shadows in the garden, shadows in the field, and shadows near the coop, all with glinting eyes. The skulk.

Devlyn grinned and went inside.