Reign of Winter: Monkey Monk and the Funky Bunch

Warm Hearth, Cold Guest: Part Two

The withered crone grips the mug in both hands, raises it to her thin and bark-like lips, and takes a sip. A sound that might be a pleased sigh follows. Yrax furrows his considerable brow; she didn’t check to see if it was poisoned, didn’t even ask. He notes then her ice chip eyes on him again, and he realizes: she doesn’t need to, she would know. The thought chills him.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, grandmother?” Yrax asks lightly.

The crone snorts in response. “Cut the skeltershit, Yrax. I was waylaid by your idiot abomination. And there’s only one reason I ever trudge these miserable wastes.”

“The Engine.”

“Mm,” the old woman replies. “Have to make sure my little clockworks is still clockworking.” She titters wheezily at her own joke.

“And I’m to believe Iantor just… what, caught you with your britches down? As you say, venerable lady: cut the skeltershit.”

The crone’s ice chip eyes seem suddenly to shine with cold fire, and her voice snaps like a whip: “You’ll watch your tone with me, boy.” Yrax recoils, fights to keep his gaze on the witch’s eyes. There is, he is surprised to discover, a bit of a lump in his throat. The frigid blue eyes hold him, and its feels like rays of fire sweep across him. He wants to shrink a little.

Just as suddenly, she breaks into a gnarl-toothed grin, and laughs. “Always so serious, you are. As it happens…” She bends over with a tired huff and begins rifling through a bundle of leather of furs that has until this point been indistinguishable from the folds of her tattered and layered dress. “… I do have a gift for you.”

“A gift?”

“Well, sort of. Where is… I know I… aha!” She straightens, pulling free a large roll of snow-white fur. “I need you to hang on to something for me.” She unfurls it and lays it on the ground between them: the hide of some strange beast, bigger than a man and with a great, shaggy head. Its claws, still attached to the hide’s outstretched paws, are obsidian black.

“Am I to—”

“Just hang on to it. It’ll look lovely in front of your hearth there.”

“Just… hang on to it.”

“Yes, boy. Keep it safe. I’ll be back for it.”

“It is… some sort of device? Or charm?”

“It’s a rug.”

Yrax’s brow furrows again. “I don’t understand.”

“Didn’t ask you to.” She settles back in her chair and takes another long sip of tea. She smiles at him again, and again he feels like shrinking. “Just be a good lad and do as you’re told.”

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Warm Hearth, Cold Guest

Yrax, Lord of the Howling Storm, is in a foul mood. As he hastens toward the courtyard, he shoots a withering glance at his seneschal. “I blame you for teaching him to speak.” The seneschal keeps his head lowered, hurrying to match Yrax’s long strides. The howling from the courtyard continues unabated.

When Yrax finally steps out into the near-blinding sun, he immediately spots the large and ungainly silhouette of Iantor clutching one of the old ice pillars and bellowing into the sky.

“I’m here, Iantor!” he shouts, hoping his own formidable voice can be heard over that of his mutant child. “What’s all this racket?” Iantor, hearing Yrax, ceases his noise and breaks into a toothy, idiot grin.

“I cappered summat!” Iantor declares.

“You… what?” Yrax asks.

“I cappered it. Like yuh said. I didden kill it, I cappered it. Wif chains.” The seneschal gives Yrax a lost look. Yrax sighs.

“Good, Iantor. Good. We can use captives sometimes. Show me.”

Iantor reaches one thick, tree-like leg down from the column and nudges the cluster of guards below him. The guards in front part, revealing amidst them a figure draped in heavy furs, bound with thick resin chains. Yrax starts forward to address the captive. As he does so it raises its cloaked head, and two eyes like chips of ice peer out from under the hood.

Yrax stops in his tracks. “Oh you stupid boy,” he breathes.

“I cappered it!” Iantor proclaims again. “Wif chains!”

“Yes, Iantor, you did. Next we must teach you that sometimes even chains won’t help you.” He motions toward the guards. “Unbind our guest.” Confused, they look up to Iantor.

“But… but dah… I cappered it!” Iantor stammers. “You said to capper things instead uh kill ’em, and I cappered it.”

“Unbind our guest now.” He speaks quietly, but there is something in his voice—could it be just the faintest tinge of fear?—that compels the guards to comply, and Iantor to keep his silence. As the guards struggle with their keys, however, the chains fall suddenly and noisily to the ground. A broad, snaggle-toothed grin emerges from the depths of the hood.

“Little Yrax,” a voice croaks, “been awhile.”

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Seems Like It Ought To Talk

“Will you stop that ridiculous cooing, Pharamol?”

The commander observes, without turning from the cage, “Seems like it ought to talk, doesn’t it?”

Amerenth shrugs. “Not every weird bird—birds?—talks. Sometimes they’re just birds.”

“Still…” Pharamol twists his head this way and that, as if he can somehow catch the bird in a different light.

“Just go to bed,” the symbiote grumbles.

“Fine. Stupid thing would probably just ask for a cracker anyway, and all I’ve got is hardtack.” Amerenth can hear him setting aside weapons, tugging off his boots, and lowering himself into his cot. There’s a thin woosh as he extinguishes the lantern, and then silence.

For a few moments. “You okay, Amerenth?” She grunts. “You seem testy tonight is all.”

“Haven’t slept well,” Amerenth mutters.

“Right. Well, I won’t keep you up then.” She can hear Pharamol settle onto his side. Moments later, there’s a thin, wheezy snore.

Amerenth curls her legs up to her chest and waits. It doesn’t take long.

A harsh voice pierces the night, barely audible above Pharamol’s breathing: “Light and dark are just two faces on the same bogeyman, you know.”

Another voice, lower and raspier: “Doesn’t matter who you pray to, all you serve is death.”

“No one wins this war. No one wants to.”

“We live in a land where everything we want or need falls from the sky. What else is there to do but fight?”

“Endlessly and endlessly, as the peasants are driven into dust and the temples grow fat with gold…”

“We have always been at war with Eastasia.” The two voices cackle, low and menacing.

“A boot stamping, brother Udoga.”

“On a human face, brother Chubak.”

“Forever,” they intone as one.

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The End Of a Long Road

Morgan has made a point to study Shegug’s face every day for at least a week now, but the uneasiness never leaves her. She and the mop-haired priest have been through hell together: over a dozen campaigns, including the evacuation of Worldgate; not to mention their childhood years in the slums. She has seen every facet of her old friend’s personality, every expression of his face. The creature that sits before her in its resinous throne, pale blue light seeping between its fingers from the polished and glassy orbs on which its arms rest, slack-jawed and with just the faintest and simplest of grins as its unseeing eyes gaze ever at the plate of frosted glass with its endlessly rolling landscape… She does not recognize this creature.

“You seem uneasy, Templar.”

Morgan shifts her gaze to the left without turning her head: Blind Thomas, the wormspeaker.

“Merely eager to have this over with, Thomas,” Morgan replies.

Thomas makes a noncommittal noise in his throat. “Soon. Tomorrow morning, if the winds are fair.” Morgan lapses back into silence; after a time, Thomas continues, “You worry for your friend.”

“Just tired,” Morgan grunts.

“No shame in it, child.”

Morgan fixes Thomas with a cold gaze. “It is a great honor to be chosen as an orb pilot.”

Thomas laughs, a short and bitter bark. “Yes, indeed. Glory be to the light and all who serve it. But it is a terrible burden too. Few pilots complete the ordeal unscathed. Many retire from service after. They become recluses, or drunks, or worse. Some…” Thomas glances sidelong at Morgan, “… some simply fall lifeless from the throne.”

“Your words smack of heresy, wormspeaker. See to your writhing tongue.”

Thomas holds up his hands, as if in defense. “Fear not, Templar, there’s no sliver of darkness in my heart.”

“Then speak plainly as to your purpose.” Morgan’s hand hovers near the hilt of her sword.

Thomas frowns. “There are dark days before us, Morgan Moonchild. We shall soon be, as the garrison men like to say, ‘in the shit.’ I need your head firmly planted on your shoulders when we crest the mountains tomorrow.”

Morgan turns away, looking again at Shegug.

“Whatever fate befalls your friend,” Thomas continues, “it is one he chose, willingly and ecstatically. Tomorrow is not the day for tears. Tomorrow is for blood. Tears may come another day.”

Morgan remains silent, though the muscles of her jaw twitch. Thomas observes her for a time, then slowly turns and shuffles away.

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Johnny's Gone For a Soldier

Brecken pokes halfheartedly at the scrub. It’s hard to focus his eyes on penetrating the inky, moonless dark. Torchlights bob like fairy lights out over the fields, and muted shouts pervade the village behind him. His mind turns over many questions.

“Psst!” A sharp hiss. Brecken’s eyes snap up, toward the left. Two tiny points of light peer out through the brown fronds. “Hey, Breck!”

“Lords-a-light, Jozie!” Brecken snarls. “What did you do?”

“Reckon you know,” Jozen whispers. His face begins to resolve in the darkness, mouth set in a hard line.

“Yeah,” Brecken says quietly. “Yeah, I know.” He looks around, makes sure no one else is near; then he kneels to bring his face closer to his friend’s. “Why, Jozie? What was you thinking?”

“I couldn’t take it, Breck. Knowin’ he’d be laughing at me ’till we all dead. And she—” his voice cracks, just a little. “It’s the pity, Breck. I can’t stand the way she looks at me now. Like I’m some dumb kid who should’ve known better.”

“She weren’t worth this, Jozie. You can’t hide long, and they’re gonna hang you for what you done.”

Jozen shakes his head. “Naw, got it figured. I can be in Juniper by sun-up. From there take one of the merchant vans up through the Star.”

Brecken’s eyes narrow. “The Star? Why you wanna go there?”

“I’m enlisting, Breck. I’m going up north to fight.”

“Pentecost’s shriveled old balls, why would you do that? The war will be at our doorstep soon enough, no need to go runnin’ for it.”

“Or stay here and what? Swing from the courthouse? Make reparation?”

“Higgen’s a vile toad of a man, but he’s reasonable. Maybe you could—”

“Even if he were amenable, I’d be a greybeard afore I paid him back for those horses.” For the briefest of moments, a wicked grin flits across Jozen’s features. “They ain’t even good for meat now, after what I done to ’em.”

“Jozen… the war…” Brecken flounders for words. “Think this through!”

“I done thinkin’, Breck. Just paused to say good-bye. You always been good to me. Since we was whelps, you been good to me.”

“Jozie… I…”

“You take care, Brecken. I don’t think I’ll see you again.” Jozen rises, turns toward the north.

“What do I tell your ma?”

“Tell her…” He ponders a moment. “Tell her I’m lost. Lost in the wild. Another lonely ghost wailin’ in the wastes.”

“Jozen…”

And Brecken realizes he’s talking to empty air.

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Out Amongst the People

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.

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The Caterpiller

The corridor is long, unnaturally so it seems; the cuffs chafe his wrists, even though he hasn’t fought against them. The hard, heavy thumping of two pairs of booted feet dog his own shuffling steps. He’s lost all sense of how far they’ve descended.

Up ahead, he sees a portal of light: the red flickering of torches against a background of… something else. For the first time, he imagines his steps turning, ducking under the grasp of one guard, catching his knee with a sharp kick, and running, running… But there’s nowhere to run. It’s taken a long time, but he knows that now. He could elude every guard, every templar, and disappear into the wilderness; and he still would not have escaped. You can’t escape the things that you carry with you.

The portal is an archway now, shaped from the living flesh of Wormwood and inscribed with holy sigils in a long-dead language. The room beyond is circular and domed. Torches line the wall, casting a ruddy ring around the perimeter. The upper reaches are illuminated only in the shifting blue radiance cast from the deep pool in the room’s center: The Pit. Talmund Harden, up to this moment unresistant, needs to be shoved into the room.

A priest, tall and gaunt with straggles of grey beard, turns as they enter. His face his hard, unreadable, and deeply grooved: like old scraps of wood in the garden pools at the Greenery. His eyes are deep and thoughtful, though.

“Talmund Harden, son of Lothan and Iolanth,” the priest intones, “do you come willingly to The Pit?”

“I do,” Talmund pushes up through his raw throat.

“Do you come here of sound mind and free will, and knowing the path you have chosen to take?”

“I do.”

The priest nods, and then motions the guards away. Talmund can hear their footsteps recede down the long hallway. The priest’s eyes are on Talmund until the sounds fade away entirely. Finally, the weathered wood of his features softens.

“You understand the choice you are making.” Half observation, half question.

“I d—yes. I will become apok.”

“You understand that this is not the easy road. That the punishments a judge would have doled out to you, although harsh, would have been kinder than the life you will face if you survive The Pit. And that, if you do not survive it, your death will be one of unimaginable pain and torment.”

Talmund nods mutely.

“You understand that this path does not absolve you, not in the eyes of the Light and not in the minds of the people. You will never be trusted, never be thanked, you will receive no helping hands nor smiles. The road will be hard, and long, and there is little comfort along it.”

Talmund does not respond.

“Knowing all of this, Talmund Harden, is it still your choice to enter The Pit?”

He raises his eyes to the priest’s. “There was never any absolution,” he says quietly. “Not for me. There is no undoing what I have done. Villages can’t be repopulated, families restored. Any such hope is naive. There is only one choice left to me, father, only one I can stomach: to become a dagger, and drive myself as far into the black heart of the Unholy as I have driven myself into my people.”

The priest’s lip curls into the faintest of smiles, but there’s pity in his eyes. “Very well. Talmund Harden, hold in your heart and your mind the sins you have committed against the Light, and step into The Pit.” He stands aside, and motions Talmund toward it.

Talmund finds it easier to walk now. Gone is the shuffling, the hesitating. The rippling, variegated surface of the glowing Pit draws him forward. It laps at the edges of its well, as if reaching for him. He finds himself standing at its edge, and he looks into its depths. At first there are only shades of blue and black, but then… he sees faces there. Bloated faces twisted in agony, poxy and boil-ridden. He sees the disease-bent arms of children, still clutching rough blankets. And he sees the eyes: wide and terrified and angry and betrayed. They stare at him. He flinches, but only for a moment. He’s earned their anger, and he will hide from it no more. He steps forward.

He had expected stairs, or a ledge of some kind. He had envisioned a slow descent into The Pit. However, his foot meets nothing but viscous liquid and he plunges into its depths, the light going out as if by a switch. The water engulfs him, and he cannot tell which way is up; he couldn’t swim to the surface if he tried. His lungs give out, his mouth opens, and the thick waters flow into him. He cannot breathe. Then he cannot feel his hands or feet. Then, as the blackness takes him, he hears the faint whispering of an ancient and joyous voice.

----*

Father Reinart has overseen this ceremony four times, more than any other living priest. Each time is different. As the ripples in the pool fade, though, he figures that he knows how this one ends. Few people choose the path of the apok, and their reasons vary. Some believe they’ve found a loophole, an easy way to avoid just punishment; some want to torture themselves without really understanding what they ask; some are simply lost. A few—a very few—really understand what the apok is. This Talmund seemed like he could have been one of those. No matter now; Reinart only hopes that he has some peace down there amongst the old bones and deep secrets.

A splash interrupts his thoughts, and he raises his eyes to The Pit. As he watches, a hand emerges from the surface. It’s shaking and gnarled, and the skin is cracked as if by fire. It stretches its fingers once, twice, three times. Then it reaches and slowly finds the edge of the well. Another hand follows. Together, they pull against the viscous waters and drag a figure up from the depths: hairless, cracked, still smoking. And the face… the twisted visage of a demon, covered in boils and pustules, with sharp teeth and wicked brows. Behind it, though—behind the mask—are eyes that bristle with purpose.

Father Reinart and the creature regard each other for perhaps minutes before he works up the nerve to ask it. “What is your name, apok?”

“My name…” the creature breathes, “… is Penitence.”

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Sumira's Reaction

Sumira considers Nex’s proposal for a solid minute in silence.

Finally she nods and says, “I like it. It requires a certain brashness that Pharamol sometimes lacks.”

“There are risks, of course,” chimes in Calissus, the symbiote Hospitaller. “If it triggers a full retaliation, we’re not prepared for that; not until the orb arrives. And if they do somehow mount a counterattack during the blizzard, our crossbows and siege weapons will be useless and our cavalry grounded.”

Sumira rocks her head from side to side and utters a drawn-out, “yessss, but…”

Calissus chuckles. “Never mind, I know that look.”

Sumira leans forward. “Okay, how about this? The blizzard will throw their camps into disarray, but likely only for a few hours. It might be best to use that up front to soften them, limit their ability to respond to your first salvo. Alternatively, it might make good cover for your rest period in between assaults, which would also soften them up further for your second assault.”

Calissus hums. “At the very least, it will impede their search for the Saint in the surrounding foothills. The patrols will be more vulnerable to the weather and may need to be drawn back to help put the camps back in order.”

“Yes! That alone could be huge.”

“But is it worth the risk? If they attack us in force, Spurhorn will fall.”

“I think the chances of that are relatively slim. They’ll have their camps to attend to until well after tempers have cooled, and—as the small lord pointed out—they won’t have a strong assessment of how much we still have in reserve. They’ll be inclined toward caution. We’ve fought Malesinder before: she can be hot-headed, but she won’t lose control like that.”

“Hmm. True.” Calissus ponders a few moments further. “Okay, I’m convinced.”

Sumira smiles broadly. “Well then, strange foreigners, I believe we have a plan. When do you intend to do this?”

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Dramatis Personae
The Inhabitants of the Spurhorn Fortress . . . and Others

Pharamol: Human leader of the military forces within Spurhorn. He is male. Seems to have a moderately low (but not entirely negative) opinion of our abilities.

Zusk: Human Templar (Male). The Templars seemed unimpressed or distrustul of us in general; but I cannot recall any specific details about this guy.

Hurjan: Insectoid Templar (Unspecified gender . . . Sorry, Thorin). Thoroughly unimpressed with our capabilities. I did not attempt to Sense his Motives (thinking a cold read of an alien being might not be very fruitful), but he may have ulterior motives for his disdain of us (for all we know).

Sumira: Human Hospitaller (Female . . . and there you go, Justice). She appears to be sympathetic toward us. Possibly because we made no effort to destroy her sortie when we flew into the fortress. Ostensibly, we report to her while we try to help the inhabitants of Spurhorn.

Jarelm: Human Wormspeaker (Female). Also seems sympathietic toward our party — and has been willing to share information with Thorin. She is a wise, aged woman and may be an inter-planar reflection of the Crone herself. Addendum: Jarelm could also step in as a love interest for amorous Asimar, Thorin.

Interested Parties

Penitence: Human male “Apok”. Possibly a “reformed” former member of the Free People’s alliance. Routinely wears a mask making him appear to be the victim of a disfiguring disesase (or other corruption). He is a skilled warrior. Possibly Wyrmwood’s analog for a paladin.

The Opposition

Malesinder: Female . . . possibly. [Confirmed.] The leader (or General) of the armies besieging Spurhorn. Nothing else known about “her” thus far. This world’s analog for Saladin, possibly. [Update: Passionate, but controlled.]


General Notes: Spelling of names and terminology may be off. Also, I seem to recall a second Hospitaller, but do not have a name or description in my notes. Of course, I may have missed other things as well — there was a lot going on during the council meeting . . . feel free to augment these impressions with your comments.

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The War Room

Cassisoche, regent of Whitethrone, is finding it difficult to listen to her generals’ reports. As they drone on about troop movements and supply logistics, her mind wanders to her mother’s sunken eyes, the slight shake that’s developed in her hands. The way that, after so many decades, Elvanna is finally beginning to look old. Not the hunched and withered age of the peasants, mind you, but… spent; used up; tired.

Cassisoche shakes her head to clear it. “Repeat that last, please, general.”

“Yes, your grace,” General Gregorich replies. “I was saying that we’ve made some impressive gains throughout the Inner Sea region, although the giants of the Storval Plateau are giving us some trouble. Nonetheless, we expect to have it secured before the thaw.”

Cassisoche arches an eyebrow. “The thaw, general?”

Gregorich coughs uncomfortably. “Yes, quite right, your grace. My mistake. I meant those months when there would traditionally have been a thaw.” The regent nods.

“And what of Taldor?”

Gregorich hesitates, and Kisevich reponds instead. “If I may, your grace… are you well?”

“Yes, fine,” Cassisoche snaps. “Taldor.”

“As I… as I reported earlier, your grace, Taldor remains out of reach of our portals. Once Qadira falls, we’ll cross the border and resume our invasion there.”

“Those foreigners of yours,” the Jadwiga Ilmater interjects, “the ones who made off with the Crone’s hut—” she and Cassisoche exchange unfriendly gazes “—they seem to have…collapsed the ley line somehow when they closed the portal. We can’t reopen it at this time.”

“Noted,” Cassisoche says, as he begins to ease herself out of her uncomfortable chair. “Thank you for the updates. Captain, kindly show the generals out.”

Minutes later the regent eases herself into an overstuffed and far more comfortable chair, beside a tall window that looks out over the city.

“It’s gorgeous at night,” Elvanna remarks, sipping at her tea. She looks out through the window, at the winking night fires of Whitethrone. Cassisoche makes a noncommittal noise.

“The path I’m on—that we’re all on, daughter—may take me far afield for many years. I hope, though, that I will always have time to return to Whitethrone.”

“However long it takes, mother, I’ll make sure it’s here when you get back.”

“Just like my hut?” Elvanna narrows her eyes, and Cassisoche lowers hers.

“I can apologize as often as you’d like for that, mother. I trusted Vasiliovna to keep it safe, and I see now that trust was foolish. Still, I don’t imagine there’s much they can do with it. They’re not children of the Crone. I don’t think they could even control it.”

Elvanna doesn’t respond, but merely sips her tea and stares out the window.

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