Naelen walked alongside his father. The ground was slushy beneath them as they traveled along the footpath. They were both carrying sacks of provisions with them, foods and goods alike. They were a kilometer away from home and hearth, and they both longed for the warmth of indoors. But Kallus had a few other tasks to tend to.
He turned onto another road, leading his son along a more secluded path.
"Dad, this is not the way back," Naelen gestured. "Home is that way."
Kallus looked back at his son, chuckling. "I would like to pay a visit to Calda," he said. "Be sure to hand her those extra loaves of bread and jars of honey."
"I don't want to go to Calda's house. Every minute I spend out here, I'm closer to death."
"There are too many 'I's' in your thinking, son. Calda is a widow. Every solstice, I like to make sure she has plenty of provisions for the winter. We give to those in need, Nihilan. It is time you learn to appreciate that."
"Calda is hardly in need," Naelen argued. "She has the King of Tauros in her favor."
"And the King of Tauros falls short every year. I'm sure with extra people to care for during winter, the humans' resources run low. So, the responsibility falls to me."
Naelen rolled his eyes. "If you say so."
When they came to Calda's house, Kallus knocked on her door. For several minutes, there was no answer. This struck him as odd. He knocked again, waiting for Calda to appear at any moment. When she did not, Kallus felt his stomach sinking. Blood rushed to the tips of his hands as he tried to force open the door. Locked.
"Dad," Naelen worried behind him, "what are you doing? It doesn't seem she's home."
After an unnerving moment, Kallus voiced his thoughts. "The most logical reason she wouldn't be home is if she went to market. We were just there, son. We certainly would have run into her."
He watched as understanding slowly came to his son. Naelen changed his posture, steeling himself. He dropped his sack on the ground saying, "let me take a look." Kallus followed him as he went around the corner. There was a window alongside the house. Naelen proceeded to wipe the frost off the glass and peer inside.
"What do you see?" Kallus asked. "Any sign of her being home?"
Naelen was silent for a long while, trying to make sense of the scene. The house seemed dead on the inside. No burning candles or fire to bring warmth. No bodies stirring or sitting. "It's incredibly empty," Naelen reported. "There's no sign of Calda or anyone."
Kallus let out a soft curse. Placing his provisions down, he squared himself to Naelen. "I hate to ask this of you, but you are small and slippery. Go through the window and unlock the door for me. I...need to make sure."
Naelen was silent for a moment. It unsettled him to see such fear in his father's eyes. "Are you sure she's not already at your solstice party?"
"Look at the ground," Kallus pointed. "How many tracks do you see?"
"Just...ours." Naelen dipped his head. "I'll go make sure."
The glass panes swung inward, almost too easily. Though the opening was tight, Naelen managed to squeeze through without injury. Once he was inside, he found a heavy fire log bracing against the door. He grunted, struggling to move it. "Urrr...I--I can't..."
From the other side of the door, Kallus was pressing his ear against the wood. "Are you alright, son?" He heard the sounds of struggle echoing behind the door, and then a loud thump. When all was quiet again, the door opened. "That was well done," Kallus praised. "Your training is paying off."
Inside, the house felt as cold as the outside. It sent a shiver through the both of them.
Kallus' aquamarine eyes shifted as he scanned the empty house. "Something's not right," he whispered. Stepping further inside, he went to Calda's kitchen for a peek. She was not there. "Calda?" he called, pivoting around the place. "If you're here, please say something!"
A few paces to the right, Naelen heard a loud raucous scraping against a closed door and a female voice in distress.
"Dad," Naelen pointed. "In there!"
Immediately, Kallus crossed over to the door. "Calda?"
"Kallus," Calda called back. "I'm locked in here! My only key was stolen."
"Is there a window where you are?"
After a moment, Calda answered back. "Yes, but it's a small fit. You must hurry!"
"Hold on, we're coming." Kallus turned to Naelen, gesturing with his head. "See if you can break it open from outside."
"Got it," Naelen nodded. When he circled to the back of the house, he found the window to be too high. The sheer wood kept him from finding a proper hold to hoist himself up. "Dad! Give me a boost, will you?" He waited a long moment, but his father never appeared. Perhaps he wasn't calling loud enough. "Dad, I need you!" Naelen kept calling as he struggled to climb.
When a male figure emerged from inside, it was not his father. The figure had grungy hair and worn-down cheekbones. Judging by the stranger's thin stature, Naelen assumed he was poorly nourished.
The frightening presence of the elf caused Naelen to inch backward. He screamed as a pair of bony hands reached out to grab at him. Naelen was quick to jump away, landing in the snow.
"Get away from me!" Naelen hissed. "What do you want?"
The stranger showed him a set of rotting teeth, saying nothing. As he kept approaching, Naelen scampered to his feet and ran as far as he could. Within moments, he sprinted out of sight, leaving a trail of footprints.
The stranger contemplated chasing the boy before shifting his focus.
Inside, he found his accomplice just where he had left her. She was standing over Kallus' body as he laid unconscious. A bash to his head oozed blood.
Like her partner, the female accomplice was thin and grotesque. She scoffed at him.
"You let that elfling go? He'll surely rat on us now."
"How far can he get in that cold? There are no houses nearby."
The woman shook her head, crossing her arms. "Get out there and fix this, Brennan. I'll make sure these two stay here."
"But, dear, I can't--"
Brennan sighed while grabbing his fur coat. "You're sure you can handle two fully-grown Lor elves?"
"Dear," she sauntered up to him. "If you don't chase down that child, I will make you sleep on the deck. You hear me?"