I wake up when I hear the crying. It isn’t Durene. She sleeps beside me, or rather, slightly apart from me on the floor of her cottage. Even though we’re close, we sleep a bit apart. Durene sometimes rolls over in her sleep, and I have no desire to be squished like a bug twice. Especially because she’s so hard to wake up when she’s in a deep sleep.
Cautiously, quietly, I roll out of my side of the bed, trying not to wake Durene. She needs her sleep, and if she knows I’m awake she’ll fuss over me and be too anxious to rest. I shiver as my shoulder touches the cold floor of Durene’s cottage. I briskly get up and grope around for my clothing, locating the undergarments and over garments I placed next to my head when I slept.
It’s harder than I’d like; I keep finding what I think is a coat and instead pulling up part of the warm blanket Durene and I were sharing. Part of the issue is that I can’t tell where clothing stops and Durene’s bed begins.
My friend and host Durene doesn’t have a proper bed; just a mattress made of soft blankets and pillows. I can understand why; she’d probably break any raised surface with her weight, and even a king-sized bed wouldn’t exactly be that big for her. Durene’s not a giant, but she is half-Troll, and that means she’s easily six foot six, or maybe even taller. I can only guess; I’m just over six foot myself, so I have to use that as a reference when measuring her.
Fully dressed but sock-less, I shiver as I pad around the room. Still cold, even with multiple layers. I feel at one of the windows and touch a wooden shutter, cold and frozen. Right. Durene has no glass.
But I don’t need to go outside to feel the cold emanating from the window. And the lovely little fire Durene made last night has gone out, even the embers. Winter is truly and deeply upon us.
Normally I wouldn’t care. I’d wake up later, and help Durene make breakfast. But today is different. I pause as I hunt for a sock and raise my head.
“There it is again.”
I whisper the words. Someone is crying. Not someone, actually. Something. I can tell it’s no person out there, but something animal. It’s shrieking. I think it’s a bird, but it sounds far different from any bird call I’ve heard back home. Far more anxious and…desperate.
Yes, a bird. But then, maybe I’m being too hasty here. I think it’s a bird, but given that I’m in a fantasy world, couldn’t it well be a bird person? Do they exist? I’ll have to ask Durene when she wakes up.
Regardless, this creature’s definitely in some distress to be broadcasting so loudly. I’ll be the first to admit I’m more sensitive to sounds than Durene, but this bird got me up even in the middle of my sleep. And it’s odd, but I have a very strong compulsion to go to it. And I even know where this…bird…is.
My socks are on, and my comfortable shoes are laced. I pause with my hand on the door, wondering what I’m doing. It’s snowy outside, and even though I have my walking cane in one hand, I know from experience how easy it is to get lost by myself.
But the creature calls out again, and I push open the door and walk outside before I can stop myself. After all, I can just retrace my steps if I go a short ways. It’s not that far—and I can shout for Durene.
All excuses, I know. But I have to follow this feeling. And so I silently close the door so as not to wake Durene and walk out into the snow.
It’s deep. I nearly stumble as I find it’s a foot deep. Jeez, winter here is not fun. And Durene’s told me it can snow far more before the season is over. I poke at the snow in front of me, but my cane’s no good in this weather. I make a disgusted noise, but still—
“A rock straight ahead?”
No. It’s just my imagination. But a few cautious steps forward and my cane pokes into the snow and finds—
A rock. Yes, a rock. Either that or some kind of fossilized vegetable. Nah, it’s a rock. But how did I know it was there?
Half a dozen explanations pop into my head, but I have no time to stop and consider them. The bird cries out again, and this time I can tell it’s from the ground, a little bit ahead of me and to the left, on the edge of the forest surrounding the cottage.
“Yes, yes. I’m coming.”
No longer walking with my cane, I stride across the snowy ground with more confidence than I’ve felt in a long time. I know I’m walking straight through Durene’s frozen-over garden, and I also know what spots are slippery and even that she’s sown several crops for next year that are hibernating under the ice—and that there’s a cluster of turnips she forgot to pull up. I skirt her fence, walk towards a tree, and stop.
How did I just do that? It wasn’t sight—I’ve never seen in my life, but I know you’d use your eyes for that and I had mine shut the entire time. But I knew where everything was. Yet here I stop, at the edge of where my…perception of the landscape fades away. Yes, it’s as if there’s a large circle around Durene’s cottage I can sense, and then just emptiness past that.
And at the base of one tree, I can sense anxious movement, faint life. And my ears confirm that as I hear the creature cry out in alarm as I approach.
“What’s this, now?”
Broken branch. Twigs, bird poo, bones…the remains of a nest. And on the ground—
I reach out and something pecks at my hand. I yelp and draw my hand back, and the fledgling bird cries out again, calling for its parents. But if it had parents, it wouldn’t be alone. So, shivering, I come to a quick decision.
“None of that, now.”
The bird cries out in alarm and tries to get away, but it’s much too weak and cold. I briskly scoop it up and ignore its struggling. The bird pecks at me again, but this time he only gets my gloves. I walk back to Durene’s cottage, thinking hard all the while.
Birds fallen from nest? Doubtless. What happens to birds when that happens? I know the best thing to do is to put it back in the nest, but what if the parent is gone? Maybe it’s just independent?
No—I feel gently at the bird as it squawks anxiously again and amend my opinion. I don’t feel any feathers, only fuzz. This is no fledgling, a semi-adult bird. It’s a baby chick, or whatever the correct term is. I’m no bird watcher.
And two more things I note: the bird is quite big for a baby. And it’s also very cold. It’s shivering; how long was it out in the snow? I hurry up and push into the cottage.
A low growling sound makes the bird in my hands shut up instantly. I smile as I hear Durene snoring; she didn’t even notice me come back in. Well, she might have to wake up soon regardless.
First things first. I don’t bother hunting for anything; I just turn and grab a bowl out of Durene’s shelves. Once again, I know exactly which one will fit the bird, and in another second I’ve wrapped it gently in a towel, both to warm it and prevent it from escaping. The chick is trembling. No doubt it thinks I’m going to eat it.
Well, food is a good idea, both for me and it. I sense around, and find some bread. I slice some, again, with more confidence than I’d ever have normally, and offer some crumbled bits to the bird. It shies away from my hand, and then I feel a cautious peck at my bare skin. The bird finds a crumb, seems to taste it, and then spits the wet stuff back onto my hand.
That’s odd. Don’t all birds like bread? I frown and try again. But this time the bird just squawks a bit as I try to push the crumbs at it, and it doesn’t touch them even when I leave some crumbs in the bowl for it.
“Drat. What kind of bird do you call yourself?”
I grumble at the bird as I move onto my alternate plan: getting this place warmed up. Durene’s stacked firewood in a corner, but up till this point I’d let her make the fire. I like to think I’m quite capable, but it really is a bad idea to have the blind guy messing around with flames.
But once again, I can quite definitely tell where things are, and even if I can’t see the position of the fireplace, I know where it is. Almost like…a memory? Or a fact. Either way, my hands are steady as I strike the flint and steel repeatedly and eventually manage to get some kindling to light.
What’s next? I feed the flames a bit and fan them to make them brighter, or however it is that’s supposed to work. I guess if the bird won’t eat, I’ll get something. There are eggs in a basket Durene brought from the village, but I’d feel guilty eating them right at this moment. How about…hm?
Oh yes, there’s half a dried sausage in Durene’s pantry. I know she’s been saving it for a special occasion; meat is a luxury for her. I hesitate as I bring it out. Maybe just a bit? Fried sausage would be a treat, but can I…?
The chick suddenly squawks and kicks up a racket as I bring the sausage past it. I frown, stop, and clumsily tear off a bit of meat.
“You want this? Really?”
I know baby birds eat meat. I mean, they eat bugs. But I thought they liked seeds and plants more than—you know what? I’m not going to argue with the facts, especially when one fact is trying to tear the bit of meat out of my fingers.
The chick greedily devours the first bit of meat I feed it, then the next. Bemused, I find a knife and slice up a good portion of the sausage into bite-sized morsels to feed the chick. It scarfs the pieces down—so quickly and so fast that I’m worried I’ll overfeed it and make it sick! I stop after I’ve given it nearly a quarter of the sausage, but then the chick just cries out for more!
It doesn’t listen to me. What a sound it makes! It’s more like a whistle than a cry. It sounds nothing like the twittering sparrows and occasional duck that will wander by my parent’s home. But it does sound familiar…
I lightly nudge the squalling chick with a knuckle.
“And now you’ve woken Durene. Good job, you.”
“Laken? What’s going on? Why are you awake and—what’s that?”
I turn and smile at Durene. Her confused voice and the way she clumsily makes her way over to me—these are the things that are now familiar to me. Funny, but after a month of living in her company I know her so well.
“Good morning, Durene. Sorry to wake you, but we have a guest.”
“Is that a bird? And…my sausage?”
Her voice is dismayed, but after a round of explanations she’s only too willing to help me make breakfast and play detective. The first thing she does is exclaim over the way I’m able to help her prepare today’s meal: a soup made of onions, leeks, peas, and cabbage. Pottage, in fact. It’s seasoned heavily with dried thyme and some garlic and it tastes not bad at all. True, it’s a poor meal to live on each day, but I’m happy enough eating it.
“How can you tell where everything is?”
Durene is bewildered as I nimbly pour soup into a bowl and bring it to the table, next to the restless chick. I shake my head, smiling fit to burst.
“I have no idea. It must be from my Class!”
“But how? I thought an [Emperor] ruled. Why can they see things? Without their eyes, I mean.”
“It’s not exactly the same.”
Cautiously, I spoon the hot soup into my mouth and think as I chew.
“It’s gotta be—I think we added too much thyme, Durene—it must be due to the fact that this is part of my domain. That is to say. My demesne.”
“Demesne. It’s another word for, well, land owned by someone. I know this is your cottage, Durene, but I claimed it when I became an [Emperor].”
“I know that. And I’m happy to let you, uh, have it.”
“Thank you. But that means I own every part of the land, not just the cottage. The ground, the sky—that must be why I can sense where to go. Because it is mine.”
My friend’s voice is a sigh of wonder. A loud sigh, which makes the chick on the table next to me chirp in alarm. I sit up at the odd cry and frown again, tickled by that same thought.
“This is one weird bird, though. I can feel it, but I’m afraid that even with my new…abilities…I can’t really tell what it is. Durene, what does it look like?”
I hear Durene get up anxiously and pace around the chick. She comes nearer to me and apparently bends over, because the chick pecks her nose.
“Careful. It’s pretty violent for a baby. It is a baby, right?”
“It looks like it. It’s one week—no, maybe two weeks old? But it’s really big…I thought it was a fledgling at first, but like you said, it has no feathers.”
“A big bird…”
Sesame Street? No, focus, Laken. But now that I think of it, there might actually be land bound birds as tall as Big Bird in this world. Now there’s a terrifying thought.
“What else do you see?”
“Um. Well—it’s got a weird color. Sort of—well, dark grey. Almost greenish.”
Doesn’t mean much to me, although I don’t know any green birds. But chicks don’t look anything like their adult forms.
“Well, I found it on the ground. I think the nest it was in fell off the branch. Maybe the parent’s still around and we can return it.”
I get up and Durene and I leave the chick behind to go investigate the spot where I found it. I feel…amazingly happy to be able to walk that short distance without my cane. There’s no trepidation, no sense of unease as I walk. I know where everything is, and I don’t have to hesitate.
Thank you. I don’t know who or what brought me here, but just for a little while longer, can you let me feel like a—a normal person? Is this what it feels like? To walk and know that the ground is there and I am here?
Then I come up to that blank spot where the world ends, and Durene gasps as she sees the nest.
“Bones! Look at all the tiny bones, Laken! And over there—oh no.”
She sees something past the spot I can sense and walks over. I wait, trying to piece together my own sensory inputs. I can tell there are bones in the nest, but I didn’t focus on the size until now. There’s still a difference between what Durene sees and what I comprehend.
“What is it?”
“I…found the parent, Laken. It—she? She’s dead.”
Durene comes back, holding a dead bird in her hands. I blink as it comes into my zone and I register the size of the bird. It’s almost a third as tall as I am!
“That’s no sparrow.”
Half-troll she might be, but Durene has a heart that weeps for everything. She sounds upset as she tells me how it died.
“It must have died of the cold. See here—oh, sorry Laken. It was fighting something, but it got hurt bad. It was bleeding, and it must have lost all its warmth when it got cold.”
“I get it.”
I sigh as Durene and I pause, unexpectedly sad over the death of this bird. I’m about to ask if we should bury it, when I sense Durene plucking feathers off the corpse.
“…What are you doing?”
“Oh—I thought we could eat it later. It’s still cold and nothing’s been chewing on it, so—”
Oh. Ah. Hm. Well, I’ve heard of people eating road kill, and at least the bird was well-preserved. Maybe I’ll let Durene have it, although I could use some meat myself…
“Okay, let’s put that aside for now. What about the nest? You say there are bones here, right? Little ones?”
“That’s right. They’re very small, but…I don’t know how any predator would have eaten the others and left the chick you found alive.”
“No, it wouldn’t do that.”
My mind jumps to an unfortunate conclusion. I bent down and touch at the bones with one gloveless hand. Yup. They’re picked clean.
“A predator didn’t kill the other babies. The chick did. It ate its brothers and sisters to survive.”
An unhappy sound. Durene didn’t want to come to that conclusion, but it’s the only one that makes sense. I straighten and sigh.
“Nature at its best. But I think I have a good idea who this mystery bird is. It’s an eagle, isn’t it?”
“I think so. It could be a hawk—I’m not a [Hunter] so I can’t tell the difference. But it looks like one of the birds that sometimes tries to swoop down and carry off a lamb, baby piglets, and so on.”
“Carry off lambs? Seriously?”
I’d heard stories of eagles trying to carry off kids, but I thought that was just a popular myth. But Durene sounds serious.
“Oh yes. [Herders] and [Farmers] have to be careful. An eagle can swoop down and fly away with a lamb in seconds if they don’t keep an eye out. Normally we try to get people with bows to shoot the eagle first, but it’s hard unless someone’s got a high level.”
“Well, this baby eagle—I think they’re called eaglets, actually—isn’t going to be carrying off anything anytime soon. I think now’s the moment when we make a choice, Durene.”
She sounds apprehensive. I make a rueful expression, or what I’ve been told is rueful.
“About whether we keep it or not.”
“Do you mean—we’d throw it out in the cold?”
She sounds horrified. I guess I’ve got my answer. We walk back to her cottage. Durene pauses to bury the dead bird in the snow rather than bring it inside and show the chick.
“I’m just thinking about the problems. A baby eagle needs attention, food—the attention bit’s not so hard, but I’m pretty sure it only eats meat.”
Here’s why this is a problem in this world. In mine, the biggest obstacle would be getting a permit to raise a baby eagle—they’re considered illegal to own in the United States, and I suspect other countries wouldn’t be too hot on them as a pet either. Housing would be another problem I guess, and training—
But here, meat is the issue. There’s not exactly a supermarket around here, and Durene’s not rich. I am, but Riverfarm isn’t, so I don’t know how far the gold coins I dug up would go down there anyways.
“I think we should take care of him.”
Durene’s voice interrupts me. I can tell she’s practically wringing her hands, and her voice is anxious.
“If we need to, I can get meat. I could try setting a trap or hunting. And I—I have pigs!”
It’s funny how she cares more for a chick I found than the pigs she’s raised for years. Then again, she must have to force herself to look at the pigs as food. I nod as I pick up the upset little bird and it pecks at my hands.
“Okay then. Hopefully it won’t come to that.”
“Do you really think we’ll be able to raise him?”
There’s a glimmer of hope in her tone. As it so often happens, I realize that this is something Durene might have dreamed about but could never realize. A pet. It sounds so simple, but for her, it might just have been a dream.
“We can try. But I have to warn you, Durene. The chick might die no matter what we do.”
Durene already sounds heartbroken as she hovers around the bird in my hands. I find her arm with a hand and pat it gently. But I don’t give her false hope. I’m under no illusions; I don’t know how to raise birds, and this young one was born too late. Or maybe birds in this world can’t tell when winter is about to arrive thanks to those…Winter Sprites, and so they can only hope.
With those thoughts in mind, I find myself constructing a more permanent nest for the chick. And that’s with the understanding that this nest isn’t going to be reused; the chick has already pooped quite extensively in Durene’s bowl.
“It should probably be pretty big. Yes—that’s about right.”
I smile to myself as Durene fusses over the chick, holding it gently and exclaiming as it pecks at her hands.
“Does it…have a name?”
“Not yet. Would you like to name it, Durene?”
“Oh—I couldn’t. Why don’t you, Laken? You found it, anyways.”
I nod and take the chick from Durene, it struggles a bit in my grip, but I have a good hold over its growing wings. I stare down at it and think for a second. And perhaps it’s another bit of whimsy, but I decide that if I’m going to take care of this bird, I might as well do it properly.
Straightening my back, I place the chick on the new nest, and put my hand solemnly on its head. It doesn’t move about much; I make my voice deeper as I speak to Durene and the world at large.
“It’s not often that I find a baby bird lying on the ground. But since you’re here and your mother—or father—is gone, it falls to me to take care of you. You—chick.”
The little bird pecks at the bottom of my hand.
Durene giggles. I smile, and think for a moment.
“Well then, I think I’ll name you Frostwing, because that sounds quite appropriate for a bird in a fantasy world. It sounds a bit silly, but maybe you’ll grow into it. And I accept you into my small empire as one of my loyal, if noisy, subjects.”
The bird goes still for a second, and then I sense it rustling under my hand. Durene makes cooing sounds of delight.
“Aw! It’s grooming itself, Laken!”
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’. Okay, let’s finish this nest and figure out where it’s going to sleep. I don’t want it wandering off during the night.”
And there we have it. Another little addition to the cottage. I’m not sure if I regret it; little Frostwing pecks at my fingers and it eats and defecates a bit too much for my comfort. It has a very sharp, curved beak. Plus, it has a rather shrill cry that can get on the nerves—
And yet, I can’t see any other way this encounter could have gone. Would I have left it there to die? No. There’s no way I would have. And I have to wonder as I go to sleep, Frostwing resting in its new nest in the kitchen. I have to wonder if it was like that for Durene with me. Perhaps I was a little bird she found in the forest. The thought makes me smile as I close my eyes and sleep.
[Emperor Level 5!]
[Beast Tamer Obtained!]
[Beast Tamer Level 1!]
[Skill – Lesser Bond: Frostwing obtained!]
“…Oh you have got to be kidding me.”
Why is leveling up so easy? No, before that, why is gaining a new class so easy?
This is the thought that circles around in my head, nudging my brain every once in a while. I don’t really have the brain cells to allocate to the issue though; I’m so sleep deprived that I can barely think straight.
It’s been a long night, and a longer morning. Durene is asleep, and I’m on bird-feeding duty. Again. As it turns out, Frostwing, the noisy little eaglet, apparently needs to be fed on an hourly basis. Or at least that’s how it felt last night. And since Durene isn’t as nimble as I am, it fell to me to get out of the warm, comfortable bed and feed the squalling creature while avoiding its sharp beak.
Do I regret all of this? Yes and no. The class helps. It really does. Because now I can wonder—what does ‘lesser bond’ mean? What’s the benefit of this class? Will it just aid me in raising Frostwing? Or are there applicable benefits?
Right now the only benefit I can feel is knowing how much to feed Frostwing. It’s like intuition—I can tell if the bird needs another morsel, or if feeding it—her too much would result in her puking up her meal. That’s valuable info, as is her gender.
I can’t tell with my [Emperor] senses, and I’m not about to go probing with my fingers. But Durene checked, and this bird is indeed a female one. Good for her.
But back to my class. I get the [Beastmaster] class. It only makes sense that I’d get it. But why did I level up as an [Emperor]? Let’s think about that.
I poke Frostwing as she tears at a bit of meat. She pecks my finger. I rub at an eye and frown.
Intent. Intent and purpose. I was fully committed to keeping the eaglet—Frostwing alive. Not only that; I fulfilled some criteria for the [Emperor] class. It makes sense that gaining exp for an [Emperor] would involve growing my kingdom and recruiting new subjects somehow.
But seriously? One baby eagle is worth a level in [Emperor]? No—no, wait a second. Maybe it’s not just numbers, but something else. Durene was my first vassal, but she came with the class. This is the first time I’ve declared my sovereignty over another being, and after I’d rescued them from death within my sovereign territory, no less.
That’s the only explanation I can come up with. How confusing. If only there were an instruction manual, or a wiki page or something I could use. But assuming this is a game, or something similar, the fun would be in finding how the rules work. And exploiting any secrets you can find.
Poke. Peck. Poke. Peck.
I keep baiting Frostwing, letting her strike at my finger and pulling it away before she can tag me. It’s, well, pretty fun, although getting pecked isn’t. But it must be fun, because before I know it, Durene’s awake.
“Laken! Is your finger bleeding?”
“So it is. I guess I must have got lost in playing.”
“For how long?”
“I’m not sure. Hours? I fed her twice.”
I’m not good with sleep deprivation. Not that I think anyone’s exactly proficient in that area. Once I’m more awake and I’ve had a cup of tea—and what I wouldn’t give for an espresso—Durene and I get about the business of business. We don’t always stay in the cottage, although it’s a tempting option in this cold weather.
Our goal for today is actually quite simple: in lieu of the practically gone sausage, Durene and I have to find something for Frostwing to eat. She doesn’t want to butcher one of her pigs and I can’t blame her. They’re not fully grown yet, and it would be a terrible waste, even if she and I eat some of it.
Plus, I don’t quite have the heart for it. What I do have the heart for, and what came to me as I was feeding Frostwing a bit more sausage was that my [Emperor] senses can be used for more than just navigation.
I whisper to Durene as we stand next to a tree trunk. She’s silent for a second.
“Found it. It’s a small hole.”
“Want me to—?”
“No. I’ve got it.”
Durene takes a deep breath, and then I hear her reach into the hole in the tree trunk. There’s alarmed chattering and frantic movement as her hand enter the squirrel’s nest, then—
I heard the crunch. I feel a bit sick, but I know it’s not over. There are—were—three squirrels nesting in the tree that I sensed. Durene grimly catches the other two and swiftly snaps their necks.
“It’s done, Laken. I’ll pull them out if you can hold them—”
She might not like killing creatures, but she’s efficient when she does. I hold the surprisingly heavy creatures, wincing as I feel their dangling necks.
“I feel bad.”
It was an idea. If I can sense Frostwing, what about other creatures? Turns out I can at least find squirrel dens, if I concentrate. Is this fair? No. But we’re out of meat and Frostwing needs a meal. So this has to be done.
Once we’re finished, Durene and I walk back to the cottage. She actually took the acorns the squirrels had been hoarding as well; they can be ground up. Durene doesn’t waste any food. Then we’re in the kitchen, Frostwing cheeping with excitement. Three squirrels are ready to be skinned in moments, and I have to help with that grisly business. It wouldn’t be right otherwise.
“Um—I—I think we’ve got to—with the head—”
“I’ll do it.”
It’s grisly, and it involves sawing and hacking, neither of us being proficient in preparing animals. Durene is no hunter, and if she does find animals, she generally has someone in the village help her prepare it for a share of the food. She didn’t even manage to bring herself to eat Frostwing’s mother—after some debate we buried her half-plucked corpse just outside the garden.
At least I can’t see what I’m doing. Durene assures me that in this case, this is a good thing. Mind you, I don’t like the squishing and the—rest. But I’m not the one who has to stumble out of the cottage for a breath of fresh air.
“Durene? I think I’m done.”
Quietly, Durene takes the fur and other inedible bits outside. I can tell she’s burying the pieces. She’s a bit snuffly when she comes back in, but determined to put a brave face on it.
“At least Frostwing gets to eat. That’s—it’s for her.”
I nod. The chick is already demanding a bloody piece of meat, and we can freeze the rest although we’ll have to watch out for scavengers. Hell, we could probably kill them.
Durene shudders a bit as I put the meat into a bowl. I clean my hands with water after I feed Frostwing and then go over to her.
“Did they bite your hand?”
“A bit. But—it’s fine. My skin’s tough and I did far worse to them.”
She sounds unhappy. And guilty. Carefully, I hold her hands, making sure they’re unharmed for myself. Thick skin. But such a terribly soft heart.
“You’re a gentle soul.”
I kiss Durene gently on the cheek. She blushes—I can feel it. And then of course one thing leads to another. At least Frostwing doesn’t interrupt us more than once.
What? It’s not like it’s hard to figure out what people in this world do in the winter. And Durene and I are new at this. But kissing her I could do forever. I could sit and talk with her long into the night. And I do. Other things happen of course, but sometimes it’s just worth sitting by someone you…
[Beast Tamer Level 2!]
It’s funny. I’ve had pets, and it’s always flurry and new experiences those first few days. But after a while, even feeding an eaglet bloody pieces of meat you’ve butchered yourself gets normal.
That’s how I find myself sitting in the kitchen, playing poke-peck with Frostwing. I think she could use the exercise, and I myself have already gone for a brisk walk with Durene. But at this time of day I usually stay indoors while she works.
Yes, works. Durene’s job doesn’t end in the winter of course. In fact, there might even be more to do. She planted a number of crops that could be harvested in the winter, and aside from tending to them, she has to clear out snow every day as well. She also normally takes this time to fix up her cottage, repair any tools, and of course, chop firewood.
With me around I can at least fix her meals and help with some small-time repairs, but my job is mainly looking after the chick. I’m certainly not a [Lumberjack]. Truth be told, neither is Durene, but with her strength it doesn’t really matter. I asked her about it at one point; she has an old axe, but she claims she only uses it to hack up the tree when it’s felled. As to the felling, she says it’s easy.
“I mean, if it’s a small tree, I can just kick it or push it over.”
…So it sounds simple enough for her. At any rate, Durene gets paid a pittance for supplying Riverfarm village with firewood, so when she’s not with me and Frostwing, she’s out in the forest. Rather, I make her go. I’m now fully confident in myself thanks to my new Skill, and we can’t always be cramped together.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Anyways it’s just me and Frostwing, testing our reflexes. My attention’s completely focused on the game, until I feel a…sensation at the back of my mind and get distracted.
As I pull my finger back a bit too slowly, Frostwing hits me with a good peck and pierces my skin. I yelp and I hear what almost sounds like a cheep of apology from her. But I’m not paying attention to the bird. My head turns and I frown.
By the time [Farmer] Prost stops outside the cottage, I’m already waiting for him, a smile on my lips. If he’s confused by my intuition, his voice doesn’t show any sign of it.
“Mister Laken, I’m glad to see you’re well this day.”
“I’m glad to meet you as well, Mister Prost. You’ll have to tell me if you’re well.”
A bit cold, I know. But I still remember how I last met the man. I hear a pause, and then a note of uncertainty in Prost’s voice.
“I’m well, Mister Laken. Thank you for asking.”
“And your wife? How is Yesel doing? And the kids?”
“All well, Mister Laken.”
Well, that’s enough pleasantries. I nod and smile again, cheerfully. And say nothing else. If he wants anything else he can just say it.
After another moment of uncertainty, Prost gets to the point.
“Not to be interrupting you, Mister Laken, but ah, I was wondering if I could have a word with you. About Durene.”
“Another word? Well, I suppose I have no choice but to hear you out. What’s wrong with Durene this time?”
“Nothing, sir. It’s just, well, I’d like to talk, that’s all.”
Oh? Talk? I see. I let Prost go on.
“Durene’s a good…girl. But she’s only a [Farmer], and I understand you’re not. She’s said as much when she came into the village a day ago. I’d hate to think she was getting involved with someone with other duties later on, if you understand me.”
Oh? Is it now ‘you’re too good for her’? What is with these people? My smile freezes a bit on my face. But I keep silent. Wait. Wait for him to keep going and then smack him in the face.
Metaphorically, of course.
“We, ah, understand—”
Now. I jump in, my voice as smooth as I can make it. Friendly. Open. I put honest confusion into my tone.
“Do excuse me, Mister Prost. I’m afraid I’m a bit off-balance. You see, I thought you were coming here for something else.”
“Oh? What’s that, Mister Laken?”
“Well, it’s just that—and you may call me silly for thinking this—I was under the distinct impression that you were coming here to apologize.”
“To Durene. For calling her a monster. Inhuman. A freak.”
I wish I could see his face. I can only tell the man is standing in front of me, but then I hear him shift in the snow. Uneasily.
“I, ah, regret the other day, Mister Laken. I do. But I only spoke the truth. It needed to be said. And even if Durene was—upset, it don’t change the facts. So I don’t think I need to say anything to anyone, if you understand me.”
Again I interrupt him. This time I don’t even try to keep the undertone of irritation and anger out of my voice.
“No, of course not. You’re a grown man and Durene’s only a young woman who looks up to you as an adult. Why should you apologize to her for telling the truth? Why should you feel guilty for hurting the feelings of a half-Troll? My mistake.”
Prost’s voice is rougher too, but he’s still determined to be polite. I wonder why? It’s not like I’d be able to beat him if he threw a punch. But maybe there’s more in him than just bigotry and prejudice. Maybe he knows I’m right.
“You seem to feel I should be talking to Durene, Mister Laken?”
“I would never tell a grown man what to do. But they’re so hard to find these days. No matter where I look, I can’t see any.”
Another shot, and I know it hits something. But Prost is a stubborn man, a farmer. He doesn’t roll over, he digs in and keeps going. Reasonable tone, conciliatory words. I can tell he wants me to agree with him, to give a bit. Not happening.
“Durene is—useful. Helpful. She cares, I know that Mister Laken. And we’re lucky to have her around some times. But she’s still a half-Troll. And that means she’s part monster. Not entirely Human. It makes us parents worry some nights. What can you say to that?”
Half-Troll. It’s as if all Durene is, is just a word. How can they not see? She is more than that. She’s a [Paladin]. What would he say if I mentioned that?
“She’s a person, Mister Prost. A person. Where I come from—well, some people judge others based on what they look like it’s true. But take it from a man who can’t see, there’s more than just sight that goes into people. If sight was all we judged by, why, wouldn’t I be as much of a—a monster as Durene?”
Pause. Did anything I said go through? I hear Prost move about in the snow again, and then he speaks.
“It’s hard to look at her and not be afraid, Mister Laken. Maybe if I had the courage to close my eyes I’d think differently when I spoke to her. But it’s hard to get past.”
“Hard, but necessary.”
“There’s some truth to what you say, sir. I know Durene and she’d never hurt a fly. Maybe—”
Maybe. Just maybe you’ve been wrong. I wait for more, but that’s it.
“Well, I’ll give it some thought and let the others know what you’ve said. That’s all I can say, sir.”
“I’d appreciate that. And I will say that if one more person hints at Durene being not good enough or I hear that she’s a freak, I’ll start throwing things. And believe me, I have pretty good aim even if I can’t see.”
I could probably nail him with a snowball, at least around Durene’s cottage. But I won’t. He came here to talk to me about Durene, and I said my bit and he said his. If he changes, all for the better.
But Prost isn’t quite done. He stands there for a while longer, and I have the distinct feeling he’s looking me up and down. When he speaks next, he has that same odd note of respect in his voice. Why?
“You seem…taller, Mister Laken. Better than before, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“Not at all. I’m glad I seem so healthy to you.”
Taller? What does he mean? But it’s clear Prost means more than just height. He’s about to leave when I hear Frostwing kicking up a fuss inside the cottage. Maybe she’s finally caught Prost’s scent, or she’s hungry again.
“What’s that sound?”
I shrug as Prost begins to sound nervous again.
“Oh, that? That’s a baby eagle I’m raising.”
He chokes on the words.
“You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you Mister Laken? Where’d you find a baby eagle?”
“In the snow, just like everyone else.”
“And you’re going to raise it?”
“If I can keep trapping animals. Eagles only eat meat, which is sort of tough for me and Durene.”
I have a sudden thought.
“Say, Mister Prost, would you consider selling me some food? I’d be willing to pay you a good price for anything you can spare out of your larder.”
Prost sounds vaguely surprised at my offer. I guess he really only came up here to chat.
“Food, sir? I don’t know. It’s awfully dear at this time of year, and the harvest was good, but not so much that I’d want to let anything go for cheap.”
“How would a gold coin sound?”
An intake of breath. I wait patiently, face straight. Yes, I have quite a lot of money, don’t I? I’d nearly forgotten with Frostwing, but hey, if you’ve got it, why not spend it? And it’s not like I can eat gold.
Prost murmurs to himself in surprise. He seems to take for granted the fact that I have a gold coin—from what Durene says every family might have one gold coin’s worth in savings, but probably not more than that unless they work a more profitable job. It’s more hand-to-mouth around here.
“A gold coin? I’m not sure we can spare…”
“What about the other villagers? I don’t need much, but I’d like more eggs than Durene’s chickens provide, and I’d love to have enough meat to go round.”
“The villagers might ah, go for that. But a gold coin—at this time of year—well, I’d have to think about it.”
I nod seriously, as if I’m considering Prost’s words carefully. Then I rub my hand over my mouth as if in serious thought.
“How does this sound, then? One gold coin—for whatever dried meat, eggs, and so on you feel you can trade. If the rest of the village will add a bit from their stock, I’ll make it two gold coins. You can take the money, Mister Prost, and change it however you feel is right. And then you can bring me whatever my money’s worth.”
Credit to him, the other man’s voice sounds only slightly strangled as he replies.
“That’s—very generous of you, sir.”
I shrug, slightly.
“I have a bit of money saved up, and mouths to feed. And I’d like to repay Durene back for all the help she’s been to me. You understand that, don’t you?”
“I do indeed, sir. Well then, if you’re sure I’d happily accept.”
I hold out a hand, and Prost takes it and gives me a firm shake. His hand is callused and cold. Somehow rougher than Durene’s, even though she has harder skin.
“Give me one second to get the coin.”
I love my Skill. Instead of having to search around desperately for the bag of coins and money, I find it in an instant. Durene hid it behind a sack, as if there were thieves lurking around the cottage. Then again, I suppose it would have been bad if Prost had entered the cottage and seen the bag lying around.
I take two gold coins out and come back to Prost in less than ten seconds.
“You’re awfully fast for a blind man, if you don’t mind my saying so, Mister Laken.”
“Blind doesn’t mean slow, Mister Prost.”
“Of course not.”
I give him the heavy coins and he promises to bring some food the next day. I have the distinct feeling he’s going to take as much of a cut as he can before paying the other villagers, but that’s pretty much why I made the offer in the first place. And if it means food—all the better.
Trade negotiations for the Empire of Laken or perhaps the Blind Empire have been concluded. All that’s left is to wait for Durene and give her the good news. She’s astounded of course, and a bit worried.
“Isn’t spending that much money—”
“Please, Durene. I found this bag by accident and there’s a hundred times what I just spent in here, easily. If it means we can feed this greedy sack of feathers, I’m all for it.”
I poke at Frostwing again, noting that she still does not, in fact, have feathers. Durene makes a noise which could be in agreement.
“How do you think I did in bargaining with Prost, though? Did I pay him too much?”
Durene thinks about this for a second.
“A gold coin? That’s…fair? A big, big basket full of meat and food would probably be a gold coin. Two is expensive, but it is winter.”
“And it’s enough to provide for another mouth and us comfortably throughout the winter. The villagers are happy, and so are we.”
Durene nods, or at least, I feel her do something as I sit next to her, sharing the blanket.
“It’s just—that’s a lot of money, Laken. I’ve never even seen more than three gold coins at once, and that’s how much the [Merchant] that visited had.”
Three gold coins? That makes me smile, but sadly. I have a bag full of wealth beyond Durene’s imagination. And I? I have no sense of what it means to her. In a very real way, I don’t deserve it. But I will try to treat it seriously. After all, if I wasted the gift I was given, that would be even worse than not getting it at all.
“I think two gold coins is fine, Durene. We could use the food, and this way we’ll be able to eat more than just pottage every night. Moreover, it pays to be a bit generous, but not too much. Especially if they start asking how much money I have.”
Not that I think they’d risk Durene’s wrath. But the image of the angry mob haunts the back of my mind, and I think, Durene’s. Conversation sort of trails off after that, but I can’t help but feel it was a decent day’s work. Maybe Prost won’t change, but at the very least, I can pay him to feed us. That’s got to be worth something.
[Emperor Level 6!]
[Skill – Intimidating Glare obtained!]
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“Nothing. Go back to sleep, Durene. And you too, Frostwing.”
He did apologize to Durene, I think. I didn’t hear it myself, and reading between the lines of what Durene said, it was a briefer apology than I would have liked.
But it was something.
And we got the food! I think the basket containing the dried ham, eggs, cheeses, and other delicious goods was enough for Durene. I could practically hear her stomach growling as I took it from Prost. And by all accounts, the villagers were happy to give up some food for good coin. So we also earned a bit of goodwill. Score one for generosity.
Frostwing certainly appreciated the meat. She eats more day by day, and she’s bigger than she was before—substantially. I can feel her getting restless and moving about more, and I wonder how big she’ll get before she’s able to fly.
Moreover, why was her nest so low to the ground, and in a tree no less? I thought eagles made their roosts high up. There’s something about her—not to mention the fact that even after we’ve washed her, Durene says Frostwing’s fuzz is definitely green.
I don’t know. I’ll have to wait and see. I’ve managed to train Frostwing a bit—she now knows not to poop in the nest and instead do it in another bowl nearby. Plus, she’s stopped waking me up in my sleep! By this point, I’m a Level 4 [Beast Tamer], the product of much work and pecked fingers. No new Skills, but I consider my new friend a gift enough.
Durene’s out helping clear snow in the village, and I’m sitting outside, Frostwing huddled in a scarf on my lap. I’m not sure if that’s smart, but my bond with her will tell me when she’s too cold, and I don’t want her to just breathe stale air.
The air is crisp, but I’m warm and my stomach is full. It’s a nice day. And then I feel it. Something enters the area around the cottage, swooping in from high above. Not something—somethings. I pause, warily, and Frostwing screeches in alarm. Then I hear the voice.
“Look! Look, sisters! I’ve found him! The one who rules over this small place!”
What the—? Did I just hear a voice? I turn my head as I hear laughter and feel something flying around me! A bug? A…bird? No. It has a voice! But there’s no person standing around the cottage. I would feel it. Yet there is something in the air.
Laughter. A voice that sounds like falling snow and pure ice rings out, up and to the left, as if the speaker is flying. She calls to me.
“Can you not hear us, oh Emperor? We are here, Frost Faeries of the Winter Court to meet you! Are you not honored?”
What’s going on? Are there really faeries flying around my head? My first instinct is to disbelieve, but my sensible brain overrides that.
Okay, faeries. Durene tells me there’s magic, so why not faeries? Wait, didn’t she mention that name to me—
“You’re Winter Sprites?”
More laughter from above me. Frostwing is squirming in my lap, making sounds of distress. I think she’s afraid of these Frost Faeries, and that makes me wary. Already I can remember legends of the sidhe, and how they can be very, very dangerous. I try to remember what to do.
Be polite, be courteous. Offer them hospitality? Don’t tell them my name or make promises.
I decide to roll with it. It’s probably the best thing to do, but I throw in some healthy skepticism just to be on the safe side.
“Greetings, faeries. If that’s who you really are.”
Above me, I hear a mix of voices speak at once, a few outraged, some intrigued and playful. My god, it does sound like they’re flying around me!
“You question us?”
“He does! Look! He cannot see us, only hear us!”
“He sees naught!”
“Aye, but he rules over this place nonetheless. Emperor of the Unseen!”
It’s both terrifying and amazing. But when they mention that title I freeze in my seat.
“How do you know I called myself that?”
It was just a joke, said to Durene in the privacy of my cottage weeks ago. The faeries laugh and I feel something colder than freezing in front of my face. Is it right in front of me? I make no move.
“We heard your words. How could we not? Ye claimed this land to the world and all living in it!”
Heard my words? How?
“Well…I suppose I’m flattered that you’re taking such notice of me. But what do faeries have to do with me?”
A tinkling laugh, like icicles breaking.
“We have come here to bear witness to you, of course!”
“Bear witness? Why?”
“Art thou not an [Emperor]?”
The faerie makes it sound as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. And I start to get it. Faeries, kings—they’re tied together, like how the faeries blessed Briar Rose in the original tale. And they’ve come to visit me?
“I’m honored, of course. But have you come to simply see and acknowledge me, or do you have some other reason? And shouldn’t you be bowing? I am an [Emperor].”
I’m playing a dangerous and probably stupid game. But the faerie in front of me laughs again, apparently taken with my boldness.
“Hah! We bow to no mortal sovereign. You may claim the land, but we are far more than mere dirt and plant. Your authority has no sway over we.”
“And yet you acknowledge it exists.”
“Of course! What churls do you think we are?”
“We came to bear witness!”
“To see an Emperor of this small place!”
“And because we had nothing better to do!”
Well then, it sounds to me like these faeries came here because they were bored. Which means they’re capricious. Better to get on their good side. But how? I don’t know if offering them food is any good—I’d have to make some, and all of Durene’s cooking utensils are made of iron.
“Well then, in the name of the Unseen Empire, I bid you welcome. You are all honored guests, although I regret that my master chef and seneschal is out chopping wood. Please, make yourselves at home.”
The faeries seem delighted at this.
“He is polite, this one! He knows how to treat us: with respect!”
“Not like those other fools!”
I wonder who they’re talking about. I sense the faeries flying lower, and inquire politely.
“Do you have any business here besides meeting me? I wouldn’t want to keep you from your duties.”
A chorus of denials greets me.
“Nae, we have time.”
“Until the spring comes, we are free!”
“Free to do as we please, and not follow one stupid mortal!”
“Aye! So we came here to meet you! ‘Twas worth it to be greeted with respect.”
Another voice chimes in, high and excited.
“Plus, we wanted to see ye before it was too late.”
“Shh! Don’t tell him that!”
I hear a light smack and I have to guess one of the faeries hit the other. I hold Frostwing in my hands, although she’s barely moving, heart suddenly beating out of my chest. Faeries. Beings that can see and predict fate.
“There’s something bad about to happen? Please, tell me.”
“Shh! Be quiet!”
“No. Forget what you heard, mortal!”
The faeries flutter around me. They start arguing, and I hear a few of them saying they should tell me. But most of them are in favor of not. A few fly up, and I raise my voice desperately.
“Wait, hold on! I entreat you, please, stay and let us talk.”
A pause, and then I sense them flying close to me.
“Very well. For your words of hospitality, we will listen. Speak, oh Emperor, Protector of Durene’s Cottage.”
No time to laugh, and no time to question. I clear my throat.
“It seems to me that you…wise and noble faeries are aware of some impending danger to me and my empire that I am not aware of.”
“Indeed, and I would never ask you to reveal a secret. But perhaps I could persuade you to help me avert the tragedy that is yet to come? Or at the very least, reveal the danger to me.”
The faeries murmur at this. I hold my breath—I’m trying to sound formal, but I have no idea how to actually talk to the fae. A bargain with them sounds like a bad idea, but this disaster—
“Intriguing. What do you propose, mortal?”
Yatzhee! I keep my face composed as I nod in what I hope is a dignified manner.
“Well, I cannot offer you land or a marriage to my house—”
“—But what would you say to mortal riches? I have gold and jewels to compliment your radiance. Would you accept that?”
The faeries confer, whispering loudly.
“Hah! He seeks to flatter us. He calls us ‘radiant’, he who cannot see!”
“Ah, but we are radiant, are we not sisters? Any mortal can tell that, even without sight.”
“True! But gold is so heavy. And it is a secret.”
In the end, they fly back down to me, probably shaking their tiny heads. I can only imagine.
“No, oh Emperor. It is not enough. Mortal wealth has little luster for us. Have you nothing else to offer?”
Nothing. Damn it, nothing. Only a bit of food, and I can’t feed all of them! If only I had an actual empire. But my [Emperor] title is just for show. I can only—
Wait. Emperor. Empire. What about—
I clear my throat.
“What if I gave you a noble title?”
“Are you serious, mortal?”
Am I? Yes.
“Only naturally. I would offer entrance into my noble court to any friend of my kingdom. You, for instance—”
I point in the direction of the voice of the faerie that just spoke.
“For your aid, would you accept a title? That of, say, Comtesse?”
“Ooh! I like that!”
“What about us?”
“I want to be a Comtesse!”
“We cannot all be Comtesses! What of the rest of us, mortal?”
Jeez, do I have to bribe all of them? I think quickly.
“I could make you…noblesse uterine if you wanted.”
Not exactly a flattering name. The tiny voices confer, and then dissent.
“Nay! Another title!”
“Marchioness, then? Or—how about Herzogin?”
“Ooh! I like that!”
“I want to be that!”
They’re like children, squabbling over titles I just made up. And yet—maybe there’s more to it than that. It might sound funny, but I am an Emperor, and I do have the power to make the nobility.
…Still, I can’t help but feel glad that no one’s watching me as I come outside and address one of the faeries who kneels in the air in front of me.
“Very well. I dub thee Comtesse of the Soup Spoon.”
So saying, I hand her a wooden spoon. The other faeries ooh and applaud, and the faerie seizes the spoon from my hand and crows in triumph. That position was heavily sought after, but the other titles are equally as important. I turn to the next faerie.
“If you would be a Reichsgräfin in my empire—”
“Aye, I would!”
“Then I grant you that position for as long as my empire exists. To the end of time, an Emperor’s word on it.”
“Hah! I will hold you to your word, mortal!”
That’s what worries me. But I have no time to reflect on my actions. I go down the line of faeries. A Comtesse, several Ladies, a Duchess and a Viscount—I dub a score of them Blumenritter, and make one a Baron. I asked her if she wanted to be a Baroness, but she preferred Baron.
And then it’s over. I breathe out and feel the assembled peerage of my empire flying before me. I bow to them regally, and hear them laugh in delight. The sound warms my heart even in this chill, but I am still afraid.
“So now will you tell me what fate waits for my empire?”
The faeries pause.
“We cannot say.”
Really? After all this? I only cross my arms and frown. The faeries hurry on.
“We cannot! It is a secret and not our place to tell. But since ye have given us an Emperor’s gift, we shall return your kindness. I swear to you, oh mortal ruler, this fate shall not befall your land or your people.”
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? No—it’s good. And I know better than to question it. Instead, I nod my head regally.
“My thanks to you. You and your kind are welcome in my land. Know this.”
“Aye, and we shall treasure your gifts to us, mortal!”
“You shall be safe, we promise!”
“You aren’t bad—for an Emperor!”
The faeries cry out as they laugh and fly away from me. I listen to them go, worried and relieved and happy in turns. Faeries. My god.
Durene finds me sitting in the snow, about an hour later. I hear her exclaim and then come running over.
“Laken! What’s wrong? Why are you out here? You’re so cold!”
I just laugh at her, which makes her even more confused and upset. I let her carry me inside and fuss over me. I barely know where to begin. How can I even explain what happened? I do my best, but she can hardly believe me herself. But there is one thing I now know, with dreadful certainty.
“Something bad is about to happen, Durene.”
It might avoid us, according to the faeries. But I cannot help but wonder and worry. It may be mortal folly, but I am mortal. And I worry. But that is only half of me. The other half wonders and dreams of magic.
I saw faeries.
[Emperor Level 7!]
Three days later it happened. I was just waking up, in that blissful moment between waking and sleeping. I was about to feed Frostwing some cold meat when I heard a roar like thunder. But unlike thunder, the sound did not diminish. Rather, it grew louder.
Maybe I was expecting it. But the reality of the ground shaking around me and Durene’s pottery clattering and breaking on the shelves is far more horrific than anything I could have dreamed. I hear Frostwing screeching, and Durene shouting for me.
We meet in the center of the cottage as the rumbling oblivion of noise crescendos around us. It feels like the world is ending, and all I can do is hold Durene to me. I feel her squeezing me hard, and close my eyes.
And then, as quick as the terror has begun, it’s over. I open my eyes slowly, for the first time in ages. Of course I see nothing, but I do it all the same. It feels like I should see something, for the world has changed.
I know it, even if the cottage and the area around it that I can sense is the same. Durene is quivering in my arms. As she holds me and I hold her, I can hear Frostwing shrieking in alarm. At last I manage to let go of Durene and stagger up to her.
“Frostwing. Are you…?”
She’s alright. Just scared out of her wits. I check her with my hands just to be sure. They’re shaking. Then I hear Durene gasp.
“Durene. What is it?”
She can’t even speak. I rush to her side, and feel her at the open door. But I can’t sense anything.
Her eyes see it. But it takes me a long time, an eternity, to coax her mouth into making sense for me. And then she speaks and I realize what’s happened.
The snow. The snow came down off of a distant mountain. The snow, triggered by snowfall of a sound or the faeries, turned into an avalanche that poured down, smashing everything in its way. It travelled miles, a vast distance, before expending the last of its energy here.
Even the last of its force is enough to destroy everything in its path. Trees were uprooted, a good swathe of the forest buried. But by some miracle—some magical help—the force of the avalanche split around the hut. Ours is the only unburied point as far as Durene can see.
“It’s a miracle.”
Durene hugs me again, shaking. I hug her back, even though I know that’s not entirely true. Not a miracle. A gift. Payment in kind.
I don’t know if I should thank the faeries or blame them. I settle for thanking them, and feel relief coursing through my veins. It’s over. We’re safe. If the faeries hadn’t diverted the avalanche, the cottage would have been buried or smashed to bits. I’m just glad we weren’t outside of the cottage or—
My heart stops in my chest. I realize with horror what must have happened. My sightless gaze turns to the road connecting Durene’s cottage with the rest of the world, now covered in snow.
“Oh no. The village.”
Durene gasps in horror. She lets go of me.
“It would’ve been right in the way of the avalanche! Laken, what should we do? We have to—do you think it missed them?”
No, no I don’t. I can just imagine what happened. The avalanche hit the village. I might’ve—the buildings are sturdy and this was the tail end of it. But what good is that against thousands of tons of snow?
Durene is panicking, and I’m rooted to one spot. We have to help. But how? It’s just me and Durene. Should I grab a shovel? No—food? What’s the best option? Where will the villagers go? Is it still dangerous there?
I don’t know what the right choice is here. I don’t know how to save the lives that might be at risk—or already gone.
Think, Laken. What can I do? What can we do?
What would an [Emperor] do?