If Pharamol had expected gratitude from the villagers, he is disappointed. They already refuse to meet his eyes, even as the Spurhorn soldiers are still throwing corpses on the burn piles, righting overturned carts, and consoling the bereaved. Mere minutes ago the minions of the Unholy were clawing through doors, snarling and spitting. Pharamol expects no medals for his service—not this far removed from the Citadel—but he wouldn’t mind the occasional “thank you.”
“Don’t expect too much of them, captain,” croaks a voice from a nearby stoop. Pharamol turns—and recoils. The old woman is possessed of a hideousness so total and unearthly as to be fascinating. Her skin slides unnaturally across the bones of her face as her jaw works, and warts and pimples that seem always on the verge of bursting festoon her crooked nose. She is feeding worms to a large bird by hand. Pharamol wonders, unfairly, if she’s digested them for it first.
“You have to see it through their eyes,” she continues. “To you and your brave boys, you’ve ridden in on white horses and freed them from the ravaging hordes. This is a big deal for you, something you’ve trained for, imagined for so many months. To them? It’s just Tuesday. Another day when they get shat on by all the high-and-lofties fighting wars they don’t care about or understand. Another day their gardens get trampled and their huts burned and their children taken. Doesn’t much matter if it’s men in white armor or demons in rags, the end’s the same.”
“That’s a bleak view.”
“It’s a bleak world.” Their eyes meet, and Pharamol finds he cannot look away. Her eyes are white-blue, like chips of jagged ice; the pupils are cloudy and indistinct; one of them seems to look slightly to his left. She studies him, her face impassive; he can only stand and try to keep as many of his secrets from his eyes as he may.
After a time, she speaks again: “Don’t let it get you down. You’ve done good here today.”
“I… thank you, my lady.”
She looses a cackle. It is meant, he thinks, as humor; and yet it tears at him like the bitter mountain winds deep in the Unholy’s realm. His bones shiver.
“I am no one’s lady,” she wheezes, “none but my own, my sweet boy.” Her face widens into a crooked and gnarled grin. “Surely, though, you deserve some reward for your efforts here.”
“I don’t… it is for the people, my la—your gra—old wom…” Her eyes narrow.
“Grandmother,” he finishes, although he does not know why. She nods approvingly.
“I am but a poor, old crone. I have no riches for you, no shiny medals. But, in gratefulness for your courage, I will give you the two things that are dearest to me: my dear boys, Chubak and Udoga.” She motions with her chin to the bird, and its head lifts. Then a second head. Two birds! But no… as the creatures waddles around to face Pharamol, he sees it: one bird, but two heads, each of its own mind. The smile cracks her face again. “They’re twins.”
Silently, Pharamol reaches out a gloved hand. The birds squawk, then launch themselves clumsily in the air, coming to rest on the outstretched glove.
“They like you,” the crone observes.
“Thank you,” Pharamol mumbles.
“Oh no, my sweet boy, thank you!”
Pharamol stumbles back toward his men, as if dazed, and the cackling of the crone behind him speeds his steps.