Day 51 – Durene
Fifty one days. At first Durene couldn’t believe it. But when she stepped into Riverfarm and looked around she had to believe it. The village she knew was gone.
Riverfarm had always been a village of a hundred people, sometimes more, sometimes less. A family moving out of the village was serious business. And while the avalanche had effectively cut Riverfarm’s population by a quarter even with Laken’s miraculous intervention, it had still felt small, even with Windrest and the other village’s inhabitants joining it.
Durene had been inordinately proud of the first row of houses that had been freshly-built by Riverfarm’s folk under Laken’s guidance. She had been there as he designed the village’s layout with Prost and Lady Rie. And hadn’t that been amazing? Designing how a village should be built, rather than just letting folk build where they pleased?
But it had order, function. Laken had shown Durene how it was better to have organization, to allow for wells to be dug so water could be drawn to fight a fire or so old folk wouldn’t have to walk far for it. And Laken was perfect for the job because his [Emperor]’s Skill allowed him to ‘see’ the landscape and plot out the village even better than Prost could with maps or a vantage point.
The irony of a blind man being the one to understand how a village should work had been lost on no one. And yet, that had been the excitement of the future. At the time, Durene had vibrated with energy imagining how Riverfarm might one day look. But now? It lay before her.
The street of houses was neat. Swept of debris, but made of stone. The paving of the road would come later. First, houses had been essential. So these had gone up. One after another, all built the same, but spacious, each one able to fit a large family quite comfortably. They had no class, and the materials the builders had access to were just wood and stone.
But they were comfortable. And each was still new, the newest having gone up yesterday. It wasn’t hard, even. As Prost led Durene down the street, the girl stared at a line of men and two women hauling materials to the next plot of land. The foundation was already laid; now they were placing their equipment just so, bringing in the sturdy beams from which the house would be supported.
“It’s not hard to do. I know it’s a sight—imagine [Builders] from Riverfarm being able to put up a house in less than a day. Or two or even three houses in a day! Well, we do have a very large crew, but even at the beginning it was easy. After the first house, we just had to copy what we did and do it right. It became so smooth that it’s almost boring. Emperor Laken was right—teaching everyone how to do a part of the house makes it dead easy.”
Prost pointed as a pair of workers rolled over two window frames in a handcart.
“Someone does the window frames, or prepares the roof tiles, and so on, and someone else brings them here. All the [Builders] on the site have to do is put things together one after another. We can go even faster, I think, but we haven’t made everything perfect.”
“It looks fast enough to me!”
Durene stared. Prost grinned excitedly. He cupped his hands as the two [Laborers] hauled off the window frames from the cart with a grunt and carefully placed them in the collection site.
“Hey! What’s taking you so long? We want to get four houses done today! Or are you all asleep on your feet?”
A few good-natured curses answered Prost. Some of the men and women looked up and spotted Durene. They waved, a few cautiously, and Durene smiled, recognizing one of the men from Riverfarm. A few gave Durene a very long look, but their comrades whispered to them and they relaxed. Someone, a woman with a bandanna over her head, spat out a nail and pointed at a beam.
“We’re waiting on ropes to pull that load-bearing beam up. Some of ours are getting frayed and I’m not going to see if it snaps.”
“Fair enough. You have enough hands?”
Prost grimaced. The female [Builder] grinned as she hammered a floorboard into place.
“Why? You want to help, Mister Steward?”
He laughed and strode forwards. So did Durene. She eyed the beam and saw it was indeed a chunk of wood. But…
“I reckon we could do this without any ropes, Mister Prost. A few hands and I can push this up myself.”
She casually flexed one arm. She still felt groggy, but this looked simple. The [Builder] dropped her hammer as Durene approached. Perhaps they’d mistaken her for a man at a distance, but up close, Durene’s skin and height were unmistakable. One of the unfamiliar men backed up as he saw Durene.
He reached for his belt. But the Riverfarm man pushed past him, beaming.
“Durene! You’re awake! I thought you’d be abed forever! How’re you? Come here, girl.”
He reached out. Durene smiled.
“Hullo, Mister Ram.”
Ram, or Ramel, laughed as she gave him a light hug. He grunted and Durene realized she was squeezing—but she’d always liked him. He’d been decent to her even before Laken, even if he seldom came to Riverfarm. The [Rancher] who also had a few [Carpenter] and [Hunter] levels, smiled up at her, and then turned to the others.
“Come on! This is Durene, our Emperor’s uh—fiancé? She’s a [Farmer] and a [Paladin], whatever that is. We don’t need to wait on ropes, Miss Beycalt. Three or four hands plus Durene should do it.”
He waved at the reluctant others. Some of the folk who clearly remembered Durene stepped up. The female [Builder] in charge, Beycalt, raised an eyebrow.
“Never surer. Come on, you three. We’ll do it.”
Prost answered for Ram, and the two men stepped over. Durene saw the reserve in the other faces, so she kept the smile on her face and squatted next to the end of the beam. She put both hands under the end as Prost and Ram and three others did likewise. Durene counted.
“One, two, three—lift!”
She lifted upwards slowly. The men grunted and the beam came up. It was probably the worst way to lift something like this, honestly—the other end of the beam was level, which meant the lifters would have to struggle as the end they were lifting grew higher. If they weren’t strong enough—or even tall enough—to get it up, it might fall. But that equation didn’t account for Durene.
Up the load-bearing beam went. Durene lifted it over her head, bracing her legs, pushing up. It was heavy, but she was strong. She was a [Farmer] with the [Enhanced Strength] Skill, which already made her very strong. And she was bigger than any man here. She kept lifting, and realized that Prost and Ram were struggling to reach over their heads.
“Hold on! We’ll get around the bottom—”
Ram shouted. Durene just laughed.
“I have it!”
So saying, she pushed and the beam went vertical. A gasp went up from the other builders and Beycalt blinked. Durene caught the beam before it could overbalance.
“Where do you want it?”
Another man pointed to a spot where the wooden beam was ready to be driven deep into the earth. There was even scaffolding set up to let a man hammer it deep with a maul. Durene wrapped her arms around the beam in a bear-hug and lifted it. She saw two men grunting and lifting as well—it didn’t feel much different to her. Huffing, Durene shuffled it over.
“Dragons take me! Is she carrying that by herself?”
“Stand clear! Durene, put it in the hole. Nice and gentle—”
Durene obeyed Ram’s words and edged the bottom of the beam into the waiting foundation. The [Builders] moved around it, steadying it, tamping earth and making sure it was steady. Then a man with a mallet climbed up and began to drive it deeper, solidifying it until even the most powerful of impacts wouldn’t so much as budge it loose. Prost and Ram wiped their brows as they stepped back. They looked admiringly at Durene.
“I forgot how strong you were, girl. Hell on Rhir, you didn’t even need us, did you?”
Ram slapped Durene’s back cheerfully. She grinned.
“It was nice support, Mister Ram.”
He laughed and slapped her back again. Durene smiled and found the [Builder] woman was looking at her. She dusted off her hands, a bit embarrassed. It was a familiar look in Beycalt’s eyes. One of amazement—and fear. Durene supposed it would have taken all the people here to move that beam without her. Especially since they’d have to crowd about and get in each other’s way to lift it.
The woman hesitated, but then she put down her hammer and stood up. She walked over to Durene, hopped off the foundation of the house, and held out a hand.
“Did I hear Mister Prost right? You’re Durene?”
Durene lightly squeezed the woman’s hand. It was gloveless; but the woman’s calluses were nearly as tough as Durene’s own skin. The [Builder] gave her a firm handshake.
“Pleased. I’m Beycalt Newman. Only, without a man and [Forewoman] of this lot. And I do recognize you, come to think of it. You were with the army at Lancrel.”
Durene’s smile slipped away. Around her, Ram, Prost, and the other [Builders] went quiet. One of them took off his wicker hat. Durene nodded.
“I was. I’m sorry.”
“For what? I saw you smash at least thirty Goblins before we got away. You’ve got my thanks.”
She nodded to Durene. Speechless, the girl looked at Prost. He cleared his throat.
“We all owe you thanks, Durene. You and the brave lads…and lasses that fought there. Heycin, you were there, right?”
One of the men in the back nodded soberly.
“[Archers]. We got out fine. It’s good to see you, Durene.”
Durene waved at him. She vaguely recalled his face. But somehow, suddenly, she felt like she knew him as well as Ram. He nodded respectfully to her. The others looked from Durene to Heycin. Prost again broke the silence.
“Durene’s just been on her feet this morning. She’ll be getting her strength back. We probably shouldn’t have tested it—but she might come back this way if she’s needed. Then you lot won’t have any excuse to slack off, heh?”
That got a laugh. The [Builders] split up, getting back to work, and Ram waved at Prost and Durene before trotting back to lay the floorboards down with Beycalt. Durene stepped back, feeling…odd. Like someone still dreaming, really. She walked back with Prost and distinctly heard some of the men whispering and eying her.
“She’s the fiancé of this blind [Emperor]? Are you sure this place is…”
“Some kind of—”
People forgot her ears were every bit as good as theirs. Durene turned her head, blushing, and Prost noticed. He frowned back at the men who went quiet under his gaze. Prost led Durene back down the street.
“Ignore them. They’re new. Most of the folk who came to Riverfarm were forced out of their homes by the Goblin raids. When they sacked the city—remember? Most of them fled to their families in nearby towns or villages, but some came back with us.”
“Riverfarm’s huge now. This is one street?”
“That’s right. One of our residential districts, according to Laken’s plans. We prioritized those—along with pastures, which were dead easy to fence off, and farmland. Our [Farmers] are sowing as fast as they can. Once we have the houses we can worry about putting buildings further out and all the other non-essentials.”
Durene and Prost both nodded at that, with a [Farmer]’s appreciation for crops first. All you needed was a bed and some land. The rest could come later. She looked around. The streets were full of people. Some waved and called out to her, but many stared at Durene as if she were a monster. Prost briskly shouted at them, waving them on, pausing to greet some people—introducing them to Durene.
“Miss Xathy, is that the harvest from the [Foragers]? Good haul! Place it with our other foodstuffs in the warehouse; don’t let people pick at it or you’ll have nothing left! It’s not snacks, folks, it’s dinner! Mister Calic, I told you, you’re an [Artist] when we need one! Right now we need a [Painter], so slap a coat on those houses and don’t talk about decorations or I’ll have you working as a [Laborer]! This is Durene. Our best fighter save for maybe Beniar. She just woke up—you remember the announcements?”
A crowd of women holding baskets had paused in the street to stare at Durene. They were about fourteen in number, and a man with a bucket and paintbrush, who’d been arguing with a [Builder], turned and jumped as Prost shouted at him. He opened his mouth, saw Durene, choked on his spit, and backed up. The women stared up at Durene as she paused. Prost opened his mouth, and then snapped at someone behind the [Painter] and women.
“Jelov! What are you doing?”
He bellowed at an old [Carpenter]. The old man uneasily started and tried to hide behind the small crowd. When he realized he wasn’t able to, he crabbed over. Durene stepped beside Prost; she knew the [Carpenter] and he had a tendency to lubricate the air when he spoke.
“Doing? Just getting rid of a few try-pieces, Mister Prost. Er, Steward Prost. I’m having a little break—”
“—Selling miniature totems as good-luck charms? I told you, we need to replace those totems the Goblins burned. It’s been fifty days and you still have fifteen to go!”
Prost’s frown was thunderous. Jelov groaned. He held out his hands imploringly.
“I can’t work on the large pieces all the time, Mister Prost! My mind wanders, so it does. And the little ones are so well-loved—they take me only a few minutes each!”
“And they net you a tidy sum. I told you that no one’s earning money in Riverfarm. Not yet; we’re pooling it and buying what we need. Do I need to shake what you have stashed away out? Turn it over, man!”
Prost growled. Jelov whined, but he reluctantly held out a pouch filled with bronze and copper coins. Disgusted, Prost emptied it into his money pouch.
“Prost! You’re hurting me! It’s just a bit of coin—half the folk who came here have their own money stored away! You’re not asking for their coin. And I work twice, no four times worth what I’d charge for eating or sleeping!”
“Yet. And I’m not charging them for food or rent. They work, they eat. We don’t have the resources to let them buy everything. Or are you going to pay for the house you live in alone? Or the wood we buy you? The tools Mister Helm forged for you ahead of everyone else?”
The [Carpenter]’s eyes slid sideways as Prost raised his voice.
“Well—I do suppose—I should get back to work. I have lots of work to do! I suppose an old man can’t take his time, can he? No. And when he goes out, he’s yelled at. I can’t wait for his Majesty to return. He was understanding of old folk’s needs…good to see you, Miss Durene!”
He edged backwards. Prost let him go. He turned to Durene with a sigh. She waved at Jelov, and then looked around. Miss Xathy was still staring, basket of greens in hand. The woman was short, rotund, with an apron on her front. Durene smiled at her, and then at the small gaggle of women, all of whom bore baskets filled with edibles taken from the wilderness.
“Pleased to meet you.”
Miss Xathy bowed very nervously to Durene and another woman thrust her basket behind her arm and nodded.
“Durene? A pleasure to see you. And about time you put Jelov in his place, Mister Prost. He’s been here every morning when you’re not in sight, selling his little ‘trinkets’. He’s got ten times what he gave you stashed away.”
“I’ve no doubt, Miss Hecla. I’ll see to it. But we have more work to do. There’s time enough to make Jelov cough up what he’s taken.”
The sharp-nosed woman nodded.
“Indeed. And with that, let’s get this sorted and see what we can make of it, ladies! Durene, again, a pleasure.”
She turned, summoning the crowd with her. Durene stared at her as the woman, tall, straight-backed, wearing a new-looking dress with no embroidery, marched off. Short Miss Xathy gave Durene another long look before scurrying off.
“Do I know that lady? Miss Hecla?”
Prost paused. He stared at the women’s backs and nodded after a moment.
“She knows you. When the Goblins were attacking, I think your group was the one that saved her and her husband when they were fleeing on the road. They lost everything save for the clothes on their backs. She’s a right sort.”
“I don’t remember that either.”
The [Steward] looked up at Durene, and shook his head.
“No wonder you don’t. Hundreds of people know you and Emperor Laken for what you did. Still more came here just hearing about a safe haven. More still don’t know you or his Majesty. But that’ll change. He’s coming back. Until then—I’m keeping them all busy. Not one person doesn’t do work here. Building, foraging, making goods to sell, sewing clothes—everyone contributes. Even idiots like that [Painter], Calic.”
Prost sighed. He looked tired as he rubbed his neck. He turned to Durene with a smile.
“It’s good you’re back. I don’t know where you’ll fit in, but we can use you, Durene. I’d think it over, but I have to keep moving. Your cottage is right where you left it—we haven’t been able to get near it. Not with Bismarck and Frostwing guarding it.”
“Bismarck? And Frostwing? Laken didn’t take them with him?”
The man paused and shook his head.
“He didn’t. I think he thought you’d be here. They’re alive. Healthy—that bird’s a menace now. But I haven’t been able to see to them. Ah, dead gods, Durene. There’s so much to do.”
He sighed. And as Durene looked at him, she wondered how hard it had been. Part of her felt sorry for Mister Prost. Another part remembered the man who used to watch as the children threw rocks at her. And who told her to keep away from Laken.
Perhaps Prost remembered that too. He looked tiredly up at Durene.
“Things have changed, haven’t they, Durene? You know, I never apologized after the avalanche. I used to think of you as…well, I remember you digging up snow and pulling people out. Now look at you. You were fighting for us against those Goblins.”
He gestured at Durene and his eyes went to the visible section of scar on her chest. She raised a hand to cover it instinctively. Durene paused. Her throat worked for a second.
“Thanks, Mister Prost. But I lost that battle. I let everyone down.”
He looked surprised.
“Says who? That [Healer]? She saved lives, but she’s no—”
“No. She didn’t say it. I just know.”
Durene hung her head. Prost reached out, hesitated, and then grabbed Durene’s arm with a firm grip.
“No one thinks that. We all know you fought—hells, girl. When they brought you in, I was ashamed I wasn’t fighting myself. I always thought of you as invincible. We should have made you armor. Given you something other than a club to fight with! We thought our army was invincible because we beat the Goblins all those times before. I guess that was a wake up for everyone. His Majesty included.”
Durene nodded slowly. She felt a lump in her throat. And Laken was…
“What was that about, Mister Prost? Back there? Is he really bringing Goblins to Riverfarm? Why not kill them all?”
She clenched one fist. Prost hesitated and shook his head.
“I don’t know. But if Emperor Laken has his reasons, he has his reasons. And we’ll find out what they are when he arrives.”
“And you’re fine with that? After what they did? Why won’t Laken just get rid of them? You said he tried to make peace with that Goblin Chieftain! Why did he—are you really alright with this?”
Durene couldn’t understand. She waited and saw the older man hesitated. His jaw clenched. But his voice remained level.
“I don’t know. And no, Durene. I’m not fond of the idea of Goblin prisoners. But if Emperor Laken says so, he says so.”
“Really? You’re not going to have words with him?”
Durene was, right when Laken got back. She was…angry at him. He should have been here! She had stepped forwards months in time and she’d thought—she understood he had gone south, but if he could have been back? If he’d delayed to keep a bunch of Goblin prisoners? Again, Prost hesitated. But this time he met Durene’s eyes.
“No. I’ll hear him out. That’s all.”
The [Steward] nodded once.
“He found my daughter in snow ten feet deep. Ten more seconds, another minute—and I’d never have heard her voice again. If his Majesty says jump, I’ll ask why because I’m his [Steward]. And then I’ll do it. If he wants Goblins prisoners? He has them. That’s all there is to it.”
He turned his head. And it was that simple. For him. Durene clenched her fists. She didn’t think it was so simple. But Laken wasn’t here. And she…
“What do I do now, Mister Prost?”
He looked back at her.
“I don’t know. If you need rest—”
“Then I could use you in dozens of places. Farming, cutting wood, hauling, building—anywhere you want to be. But maybe you should visit your cottage, Durene. Check on Laken’s animals. You don’t have to do everything today. You just woke up. And if you really need help, Lady Rie or I will be about.”
“Rie. She’s helping too? You trust her?”
Durene muttered resentfully. She knew it was petty, especially after the way Rie had greeted her with such relief. Again, Prost shrugged.
“I don’t know if she’s here for more reasons than wanting to become part of whatever this is. It’s hard to imagine a [Lady] living as she does. But she does. And I’ll say this, Durene. Lady Rie’s one of the reasons why Riverfarm’s still working. She’s been buying supplies, using her connections—and managing the half of the village I can’t. I’m grateful to her.”
He met Durene’s eyes and she had to look away, embarrassed and ashamed of herself. At last, Prost checked the sky.
“I have to go. I need to organize more people to the [Farms]. To feed two thousand…we have to plant and harvest as fast as we can. Durene, I’ll leave you. But maybe there is somewhere you need to go first.”
Durene froze. Prost looked west.
“I say that. But it’s more like a memorial spot. Not many graves. Still, there’s markers…it’s that way. By the old village. Seemed like a good spot to place it.”
He pointed. Then he looked at Durene and walked off. And the half-Troll girl followed his gaze and began to walk. And all the strangeness of waking, the bitterness and confusion of Laken being missing and doing strange things with Goblin prisoners—all of it became background.
She was there again. Walking side-by-side with men and women from Riverfarm and every village, city, and town in the region. A woman with a pointed hat aimed her wand at a ruined city. Durene saw the ranks of Humans moving faster. Then running. She heard a roar and echoed it. And from the city they came, thousands of green bodies, shrieking in their high-pitched war cries, fighting in the mud and gore. And Durene charged, swinging her club—and the dead fell. Goblins and people.
There they were. Buried in rows, in a place where a village had stood. Side-by-side. Neatly in death. Not how they had fallen. Durene halted as she left the neat, organized dirt roads of the village. Someone had cleared the spring growth from the ground in the immediate area, but sprouts still bloomed, poking through the soil.
Rows and rows of them. The grave makers had been planted. But Prost was right. Few had been dug. The markers were what mattered. And they were neatly tended to, the flowers still fresh. The grief hung in the air, and the cemetery itself was quiet. Durene walked forwards, silently.
This was Riverfarm. The original Riverfarm. She remembered it. This used to be the southern end of the village. But it had been buried in snow after the avalanche. And only near the end had they recovered the deepest bodies. No one had wanted to rebuild here.
And now—the graves were quiet. Durene supposed they were visited, but Prost probably did keep everyone moving. So if the cemetery had visitors, it was later. She looked from gravestone to gravestone, reading the markings written in ash on wood, or in cases of stone, carved there.
Names. Sometimes with a [Class] and levels attached. Other times just left so. Sometimes with a few words, written in memory of the deceased. Or that the person had said in life. Rows and rows. So few that Durene recognized. Too many that she did.
Nielfra Grassc. [Huntress]. Died fighting Goblins.
Thel Grasse. [Hunter]. Died fighting Goblins.
Inmki. Aged 41.
Sadil Prowli, beloved child.
Grimby, the Woodsman of Windrest.
Ellric Edsmund, died in the Battle for Lancrel.
Name after name. Each grave tended to. Some by family, and marked with care. Others placed there with respect, if not love. Durene walked past marker after marker. And, horribly, she felt nothing for so many.
She had not seen them buried. She didn’t remember them. They weren’t of Riverfarm. And Durene hadn’t known them except for a passing face, a jest, a flash in the battle. But—she bit her lip until it nearly bled. They had answered Laken’s call. They had come to fight Goblins.
And then she saw a name she did recognize. Lamily, Daughter of Riverfarm. Died fighting Goblins. Durene paused. Lamily? She remembered a woman, always grumpy, nowhere near as pleasant as her name indicated. A widow, a [Farmer]. Skilled enough with a pitchfork to kill a Corusdeer that went on a rampage eight winters back.
Dead. Durene hadn’t even known she’d died in the battle. She bent, trying to imagine the woman’s lined, angry face. She’d been at the battle? Or had it been earlier? In the first battle for Riverfarm, against the Goblin raiders?
Durene couldn’t remember. The deaths felt so long ago. And she felt—lost.
She was a stranger to Riverfarm. Some of the faces felt familiar. Prost did. Rie did. Ram—and yet, the village was bustling. It wasn’t even a village anymore, was it? Durene hadn’t seen more than a fraction of it. And yet, it had streets, and hundreds of familiar faces.
Her home was gone. And it had gone in the days where she’d slept in fever and madness. And Laken was missing.
Durene slowly bent in front of Lamily’s grave. She felt so tired. And adrift. It felt like nothing was real. She wanted to lie down and sleep again, and if she slept long enough, perhaps, perhaps Laken would be back. And time would flow backwards and she wouldn’t feel so lost. Durene bent to sit on the thin layer of grass. And then she saw something fluttering down out of the sky.
The half-Troll girl looked up. A bird flew out of the sky. Not a robin though, or a forest bird she was used to. It was a crow. No—a raven. It flew down, cawing. And Durene saw it land on something in the graveyard.
A bit of blue, poking up above one of the headstones. Durene frowned. The strange blue thing didn’t match the rest of the solemn place. The graves were stone or wood, grey and brown and sometimes even white stone, but never blue. And the brown earth, the green shoots of grass and occasional flowers—
Blue? Durene took a step towards it. Then she saw the patch of blue move. It rose, and became a pointed dome. A hat. And the raven, pecking at it, flew up and alighted on a gravestone. Durene saw someone stand up from where she’d been kneeling. And she saw a pale face. Spectacles. And she recognized the person who turned to look at the raven.
It was a [Witch]. Wiskeria. And, seeing her, Durene felt a shock. Because Wiskeria at least, hadn’t changed.
She was the same as Durene remembered seeing before the battle. The same, from her clothing to the spectacles on her face, an oddity in Riverfarm. The same, but her face was shadowed. Her expression clouded and upset. Her eyes red-rimmed. So she wasn’t the person Durene remembered. Nor was her voice as she shouted at the raven.
“Begone! I told you twice, no! Tell her no! Tell them all I said no!”
The raven cawed and flew up as Wiskeria pointed a trembling finger at it. It flew around her head, making loud, shrill sounds. It alighted on another headstone. And then, to Durene’s shock and horror, it spoke.
“Wiskeria. Come. Come!”
The voice sounded like a raven’s caw, but the words were undeniable. Durene froze, her eyes wide in horror. What kind of animal was this? Some kind of [Beast Tamer]’s special pet? Like Laken’s? But Wiskeria just shook her fist at it.
“No. And no again! I said no! I won’t go. I have duties here. I can’t leave! I don’t care what the others say. Tell them no!”
The raven was insistent. Wiskeria glowered. She grabbed at something on the ground. A piece of soil. She hurled it and a show of dirt sent the crow flying.
“No! Begone and tell her no!”
This time the bird didn’t reply. It took flight. Wiskeria glared as it flew off. Durene followed it with her eyes and then saw the [Witch] walking towards where the raven had been. Durene walked closer and saw Wiskeria was bending over. Brushing at some dirt that had gotten on top of a grave. She was so engrossed she didn’t notice Durene at first. Then she looked up. Durene was hard to miss.
Wiskeria’s pale face went paler. Durene looked down at her. The [Witch] was thin. Thinner than Durene remembered her. But still the same.
“Wiskeria. It’s me.”
Durene felt silly saying it out loud. But Wiskeria seemed as shocked to see Durene as the Troll girl was to see her. The [Witch] opened her mouth and hesitated. She looked at Durene’s tunic and her eyes widened as she saw the scar on her chest.
Durene reflexively covered the wound. Then she stopped. Wiskeria had been the one to save her, according to Prost.
“Yeah. I was asleep. Sick, apparently. I’ve been…asleep.”
“I know. I kept coming to see you. Do you remember?”
“Oh. Well…it’s good to see you.”
Wiskeria tugged on the brim of her hat. She looked around, almost unsteadily. Then back up at Durene.
“I’m so glad.”
She reached out and caught herself, withdrew the hand. Durene blinked. Wiskeria wasn’t like this. She remembered a confident, no-nonsense person. Not whoever this was.
“I’m glad to see you too. What was…that?”
She pointed vaguely in the direction of the crow. Wiskeria turned her head.
“That? Oh—a message. From a…friend.”
Durene had no idea you could train crows to send messages. But then, Wiskeria was a [Witch]. Wasn’t that what they did? Durene knew of [Witches] as scary, mysterious people. Riverfarm had never had one around, but you heard rumors. But Wiskeria had been so normal when she’d shown up as part of the Celestial Trackers that Durene had hardly given it a second thought what with everything else happening. Now?
Wiskeria repeated herself. She wavered. And then she looked around.
“Sorry. It’s such a surprise. I’ve been…did you just wake up? Are you here to pay your respects?”
“I guess. I mean, I am.”
Embarrassed, Durene realized that must have been why Wiskeria was here. And the [Witch] looked so solemn, so pained, so sad that Durene felt callous by comparison. Wiskeria nodded a few times.
“I’ve been here. Most days. Thinking about my—what happened. I try to do it now, when no one’s about. They come after sunset. The families, you know.”
“Are all these people who died in the battle?”
Durene gestured around the graveyard. Wiskeria shook her head.
“They’re also your folk who died before that. But most of them come from the battle. This isn’t all of them either. The rest were buried in their homes. If they still remained. I…I saw to that.”
She bit her lip and looked down. Durene stared at her. She looked around the cemetery again.
“What have you been doing? Besides this?”
Wiskeria looked blank. She stared around and shook her head.
“Laken’s gone. I haven’t gotten any orders from him. Well—Rie and Prost keep in contact. But he’s coming back. With Goblins. You heard about that?”
Durene gritted her teeth.
“I did. What do you think about it?”
The [Witch] shrugged her shoulders listlessly. She shook her head.
“I hope he comes back. Riverfarm’s growing. And it’s difficult now. There’s so many new people. Did you see…?”
“No. I just went down one street. Then Prost pointed me here. I had to get away from it all.”
“You’ll see it tomorrow. Or the next few days. It’s amazing. But Prost and Rie have everyone doing jobs. Farming—there’s nearly a hundred people working the fields. They’re huge. So big that we need people with bows shooting down birds and animals trying to get at the seeds. And [Woodcutters], people quarrying stone—it’s incredible. But problematic. There’s crime now. [Bandits] have started raiding the area with Laken gone. As well as [Thieves] in the village. Town.”
Durene’s eyes widened. Bandits? Laken had helped crush a few groups early on, but the Goblins had scared most of them away. She looked at Wiskeria.
“That’s awful. Are you having trouble finding them?”
The [Witch] looked blank for a moment. Durene nodded and frowned.
“You’re our [General]. What’s the army doing? Are we putting out traps or hunting for them or what?”
Wiskeria was just shaking her head.
“No. No. I’m not—I quit, Durene. I stepped down. I’m not in charge of anything anymore.”
Thunderstruck, Durene looked down. The [Witch]’s face was covered by the brim of her hat.
“I shouldn’t be leading. I was the one who got everyone killed during the battle. All these graves? They’re because of me.”
“No. No, that was a bad order. Rie told me herself. Laken didn’t tell you to attack.”
That had been a shock too. Someone had betrayed Laken. Knocked out Nesor to send a [Message] telling Wiskeria to attack the Goblins. The [Witch] nodded.
“I know. But I obeyed it. And because I didn’t know what to do, we attacked and the Goblins defeated us. They would have wiped us all out, Durene, but for Lord Tyrion and Lord Pellmia. They saved us with an army of their own. But so many died…”
She gestured around at the graves. Durene swallowed.
“That wasn’t your fault, Wiskeria.”
The [Witch] paused.
“That’s kind of you to say. Few people agree with you. It doesn’t matter either way; the army’s disbanded. The remainder is sticking close to Riverfarm. We have a mounted group—the adventurers and [Soldiers] patrol around Riverfarm. But there’s no need for an army.”
“There’s every need. Laken’s bringing back Goblins. Hundreds of them!”
Durene snapped. Why was no one talking about that? Wiskeria just shook her head.
“He has his reasons. Whatever they are. When he comes back, he can appoint a new [General]. I’m just staying to make amends. There’s not one [Alchemist] among all the people of Riverfarm; they all were lured to other cities. There’s an [Herbalist], but she’s Level 9. I’m helping until Prost can find or train someone up.”
Wiskeria sighed. She looked so small, so deflated. Durene didn’t know what to say. She looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch] stared at Durene’s scar and then looked around.
“I’m going to clean up. Then gather some herbs. It’s good to see you, Durene.”
The [Witch] nodded, ignoring the question. She walked off. Durene let her go. She stared around the cemetery. And the sense of wrongness intensified. Durene hurried away, stepping carefully between the graves. Everything was so wrong. The village. Wiskeria. All of it. She didn’t head back to Riverfarm. Instead, she climbed, up, towards the forest. And her home. Hers and Laken’s. On the way she looked back once.
Riverfarm had been a group of farms by a river. Small enough to miss in the shadow of the mountain, and it was a small mountain compared to any of the High Passes. It had been a collection of spread out houses connected by a small street.
Now it was a town. Neat rows of carefully-laid houses stretched down a main street, and the residential district was already nearly four hundred houses large. Massive warehouses had been formed in another district to hold food. Fires and lights burned in the town, and hundreds, thousands of shapes milled about, forming queues for supper.
Across the river, Durene saw farmland. Not the patches a single [Farmer] or family could tend to, but a vast swathe of converted farmland, enough to feed tens of thousands if it all came to seed. The landscape had changed. A forest had vanished to make way for the houses. The uneven meadows across the river were all tilled soil. Durene stared. And then she turned away and went home. It had to be the same. Let one thing be the same. One—
The cottage was as she’d left it. Durene nearly cried with relief at the sight of the humble hut. The thatched roof was still there, unlike the rooftop tiles used in Riverfarm’s houses. Her garden was there, messy, overgrown—it looked like animals had torn it apart. But the fencing was still there, broken in only one spot by something heavy. And her door, her shuttered windows—it was all there.
Durene’s eyes filled with tears as she stumbled towards her cottage. She just wanted to sleep there. She could think about Laken being gone tomorrow. She could face everything. But now—she reached for the handle. Then she heard a shriek. Something hurtled at her from the evening sky. Durene instinctively held a hand up. She felt something rake across her arm, and sting her skin.
Something screamed in her ears, then flapped up. Durene swung an arm, and the thing retreated. It darted forwards to peck again and then—abruptly—halted in midair. Durene stared. She saw a flash of vibrant blue feathers. Two staring, yellow eyes. And a shape she half-recognized. The half-Troll girl lowered her arm.
The bird screamed. It was a familiar sound, the obnoxious complaint the bird always used to utter when it demanded food. But it was louder. And Frostwing was fully grown. A huge bird, nearly as large as an eagle, spread her wings and glared at Durene. There was a fierce, predatory look in her eyes. As Durene hesitantly reached out, Frostwing pecked.
“Ow! Frostwing, it’s me!”
The bird halted, baring it’s talons as it perched on Durene’s cottage. She seemed to know Durene, but she was hesitant. Durene was as much as stranger to Frostwing as the bird was to her. Slowly, Durene held out a hand.
“Frostwing? It’s me. Durene. I live with Laken. You remember him?”
The bird reacted to Laken’s name. It half-pecked at a finger, and then slowly, hopped forwards. Durene felt the bird latch onto her arm and winced, but only a bit. Frostwing’s talons were sharp. Slowly, carefully, Durene brought her close and raised a hand. Frostwing flinched, but Durene’s fingers were gently as she stroked the bird’s head. It stared at her, trembling. And Durene felt her heart hurt.
“Have you been here while I’ve been asleep? Did no one look after you? How could Prost? How could they?”
The bird didn’t reply. Durene looked around. The cottage was tended. But why hadn’t anyone taken care of her garden? She’d planted during the winter. They could have looked after it. And there was a hole in her roof! Why hadn’t—
Then she heard the shuffling. Something grunted. Durene whirled and Frostwing took off, screaming in alarm. Something was lurking around the side of her cottage. Durene hesitated. Her heart pounded in alarm—then she caught herself and made a fist. She strode forwards, ready to swing—
And paused. A large, green-furred bear blinked up at her. He was a giant, larger than any regular black bear and even brown bears. His fur was thick, the moss-green color that gave his species its name. The fur was dirty, and Durene could swear there was even a mushroom growing among the hairs.
But the bear seemed placid and content. He clearly recognized her because he came snuffling up to her, padding forwards with a tread heavier than even Durene’s. He leaned against her and sighed. Durene looked down.
Day 52 – Durene
It was raining when Durene woke up. That didn’t bother her. The steady funnel of water pouring through the hole in her roof on the other hand definitely did. At first, Durene’s sleepiness conflated the water with her own bladder and she got up to pee. And then she saw water soaking her floorboards and shouted in disgust.
A bird screamed. Frostwing took off, flying about the cottage in alarm as Durene, muddled, rushed about for a bucket to contain the water. But after she saw her warped floorboards, she realized it was no use. The hole had been here for weeks, and her floor was ruined.
“Damn, damn—Frostwing, shut up!”
Durene shouted at the bird. Mercifully, Frostwing shut up. She stared as Durene, swearing, found a dusty hammer in her toolbox. She didn’t bother looking for her scrap wood—she just yanked up a floorboard and stomped outside. Durene had a ladder she kept for repairs for her roof; that at least was in the right place. The problem was that someone was in the way.
Bismarck, the bear, was snoozing in a den around the cottage’s back. He’d apparently fallen in love with her woodshed. And her root cellar. The bear had torn the door off her cellar and combined it with the woodshed to accommodate his bulk. Durene was too annoyed to be impressed with the Mossbear’s intelligence. She prodded at him.
Bismarck’s annoyed growl was deep and rumbling. It was the kind of sound that would have scared the urine out of anyone who heard it and saw his huge eyes open and his mouth reveal a row of teeth. Bismarck growled in annoyance and then looked up into Durene’s wet face and her glare.
He blinked, got up, and shuffled out of the way. Durene scowled at the broken back of her ladder. But half of it was working, so she propped it up, climbed up four rungs, and started pounding nails into her roof.
“Lousy—stupid—Frostwing, be quiet!”
The bird was protesting its captivity. Durene hammered the last nail into place, decided that was enough, and stomped inside. A glaring bird assailed her with more shrieks. Durene nearly shrieked back.
“I’ll get you some food! Be quiet!”
And Frostwing was. The bird watched as Durene cast about the cottage, only to realize that she did not, in fact, have any food. Anything she’d owned was long-since rotted. But Durene was saved from being screamed at by the sight of a basket filled with…food?
She peered inside. Dried meat, half-eaten, moldy potatoes, and fish bones peeked out at her. Durene recoiled from the smell, but Frostwing alighted on the basket and tore at it. Durene stared at it, and then at the shutters that had clearly been opened to let it go through.
“So that’s how they fed you. Left it and ran? And what are the potatoes for? Bismarck?”
On cue, the Mossbear pushed open Durene’s cottage with his head. He trotted over to the basket and stuck his nose in. Frostwing, affronted, fluttered up and screamed at him. Bismarck made a galumphing sound and nosed in the basket for the potatoes. Frostwing landed on the other edge of the basket and began pecking at the meat after a moment.
Durene just stared. Then she caught hold of herself and snatched the basket. Bismarck and Frostwing both recoiled. The two animals turned to Durene. Bismarck made a confused growling noise. Frostwing shrieked—and received a tap on the beak.
Durene frowned the bird. Frostwing screamed, and Durene waved a bit of dried meat in her face. Abruptly, Frostwing went still. Her head darted for the meat—and Durene let her take it.
“Be quiet. Understand? Quiet. And I’ll feed you.”
The bird considered the deal. She hopped back onto the table and Durene saw a large nest had been made out of a pillow and branches. It was covered in bird poop, bones, and scraps. Durene wrinkled her nose, but Frostwing sat in it. She opened her beak and screamed, but softly. And she made a begging motion, as if she were a chick.
Durene handed her another bit of meat. Frostwing took it and swallowed, then begged again. The sight hurt Durene to see. Frostwing was nearly feral; apparently the only way people had been able to feed her while Durene was asleep and Laken was gone was to leave meat out in the open and let her eat it. She wasn’t unhealthy—but she should have been with Laken. He must have thought she was with Durene, until he found out she was sick.
“It shouldn’t have happened like this. None of it.”
Durene whispered. She felt her eyes stinging as water dripped down from the poorly-patched hole. Then she felt a wet nose and jumped. Bismarck tried for the basket. Durene pushed his head back.
“No. Go back. Sit! Sit!”
She ordered him as if he were a dog. Laken had never really trained Bismarck, but the bear hadn’t needed it. Bismarck considered the instructions, then, to Durene’s great surprise, went over and sat. Stunned, the half-Troll girl stared at him and then took out a moldy potato. The bear devoured it and opened his mouth for more. On the table, Frostwing shrieked, demanding attention.
Caring for the two animals took nearly two hours. Not just to feed them; to make them comfortable around her. Durene alternated between stroking Frostwing’s head and combing Bismarck’s dirty fur with her comb. The bear and even the bird soon began to nuzzle her, leaning against her, as their wariness faded and memory of her returned.
It wasn’t so bad with Bismarck; he clearly regarded Durene as a friendly face. But Frostwing hurt. When the bird finally seemed to remember Durene she leaned against the girl and shivered into her side. Durene closed her eyes. Why hadn’t Frostwing gone after Laken? She could clearly fly. But then—this was her home.
“You shouldn’t have stayed here. Prost should have gotten you. But maybe you were too scary for him. I’m sorry, Frostwing. I’m so sorry. I was asleep.”
The bird’s only response was to peck Durene on the cheek, but softly. Durene didn’t know if the bird understood her. But from the way Frostwing looked around and then at Durene, she realized she was looking for Laken now.
“He’s gone. I’m sorry. I don’t know when he’s coming back.”
The bird just stared at Durene. And the girl couldn’t give any other answer than to stroke Frostwing’s head. In her ruined cottage, the girl sat. And she felt worse than she had yesterday.
For two hours. And then Durene had to get up. She looked outside as Frostwing perched on her arm and Bismarck trotted outside. It was still raining. Durene was used to the spring rains and the downpour outside wasn’t too bad. In fact, one of Durene’s few [Farmer] Skills—[Weathersense]—told her that it wouldn’t be much longer before the downpour stopped.
It must have started in the night. And try as Durene might to hate the weather, she knew it was essential for the crops. Riverfarm needed water for the harvests. This was usual. It was just that Durene hadn’t been able to prepare herself. She looked at Frostwing and her stomach rumbled. That startled the bird; Frostwing fanned her wings and nearly took off.
“I’m hungry. There’s no food for me.”
Durene looked at the empty basket. The two animals had handily devoured the scraps. Not that Durene would have eaten from it anyways. She looked out the window.
“I’ve gotta go to Riverfarm, I guess.”
Durene opened the door. Sure enough, the rain was becoming a sprinkle. She would have gone outside, but Frostwing panicked. The bird pulled at Durene’s tunic, trying to pull her inside the cottage.
“Frostwing! Ow! Stop! I’m not going to leave you!”
The girl protested, but the bird refused to calm down. Exasperated, heartbroken, Durene looked around. Laken had asked for a hawker’s glove to let Frostwing land on his arm. He’d made one for her, but she hadn’t used it. She found it under a bed and put it on. Durene held out her arm like she’d seen Laken do.
“You can come with me! But only if you behave. Understand? Behave.”
The bird quieted down. Slowly, she hopped onto Durene’s arm and braced. Durene stared at her. The bird stared back. Slowly, Durene looked about. Bismarck paused as he backed into his den around the cottage back.
“You’ll scare everyone. You stay here, okay?”
The Mossbear made a sleepy sound. Durene eyed him. She decided it was fine. Bismarck rolled over in his little outdoor den and Durene wondered if this was what owning a dog was like. Probably not; all the dogs in Riverfarm used to hate her. They’d bark non-stop when she came near and even tried to bite her—until she’d thrown one that bit her arm into a tree. Then they just barked and ran away. Until the avalanche.
Slowly, balancing Frostwing on one arm until she got tired and the bird decided her shoulder was more fun, Durene descended into the village. It was even larger than last night. But Durene could see her old road slowly entering Riverfarm from the side, so she walked down into the village’s streets.
And she got lost. It seemed impossible, but even the few streets of Riverfarm were enough to throw Durene off. She stared at the flood of people walking about, some forming lines for food. There were multiple cooking stations, based out of buildings and awnings, serving food to people who grumbled and tried to stay out of the last of the rain. They stared back at Durene. Hundreds of faces as she trotted down the street. Frostwing uneasily fanned her wings and the murmurs increased.
“Five Families. Is that…?”
“Half-Troll? I thought she was on death’s bed!”
“—Durene—I told you. She’s Emperor Laken’s—”
“A giant! Killed a dozen Hobs herself. I saw it all—”
“Monster. Should have gone to Muerfurt. Or Kingscell. Anywhere but this.”
That last voice made Durene look around sharply. But she didn’t see who it was. A girl ran up to Durene in the street.
The half-Troll girl stared. She recognized this face. The long, red pigtails. The overalls. Prost’s daughter had inherited her hair from her mother, Miss Yesel, but she had something of his build, stocky for a girl. She was only…six? No. Seven. She waved at Duren and came to a halt, eying Frostwing. The bird glared back and Durene raised a hand to sooth her.
The girl nodded. She stared up at Durene.
“You’re alive! Da said you were, but you went home. He’s in his Majesty’s throne room. Do you want to meet him?”
“I—I need breakfast. And I should see him. I just…this is Frostwing. Frostwing, you remember Chimmy. Right?”
The bird glared down at the girl, clearly not sure if she did. Chimmy stared back and warily held out a hand. The blue bird pecked and Durene blocked it—Chimmy withdrew her hand sharpish. She regarded Durene.
“I can get you food. You want bread? Stew? We’ve got meat too.”
Durene’s stomach rumbled, and Frostwing nearly took off.
“That would be great. And uh, maybe a bit of meat?”
She wasn’t sure if it was for Frostwing or for her. Chimmy nodded and dashed towards one of the cookhouses. She slipped through the lines and Durene saw a [Cook] serving food frown and look up. She glanced out a window, did a double-take as she saw Durene petting Frostwing, and grabbed some food.
The folk waiting in line protested when they saw Chimmy coming out with a double-helping—again, until they saw Durene. Then they just stared as she wolfed down her breakfast in the street and Chimmy offered a bit of meat which Frostwing deigned to eat after three sniffs. Fortified, Durene nodded to Chimmy and the girl showed her where to put the empty bowl and plate.
“Just there. We’ve got [Washers] and such who do all the dishes. I’m supposed to help them today, but helping you is more important.”
The girl informed Durene with the air of a child who had her alibi all sorted when she was inevitably asked. She led Durene down the street, chattering as the older girl followed her, mystified.
“All sorts of things happened when you were asleep, Durene. Riverfarm’s big now! There’s hundreds and hundreds of people. And they all listen to my Dad. And Lady Rie. She makes them work, and anyone who argues has to stand in the stocks! We have stocks now. Da says we shouldn’t ought to need them, but until Emperor Laken gets back we need them. But most people work. There’s everything to do and we need so much of everything. Wood, stone, nails—Mister Helm is making lots of metal, but he says we need to have our own mines. We have to buy our ore, which Lady Rie says is costly. And Da’s worried about how much coin we have, even though we all pool our wealth. He says we need to grow something worth coin, but he doesn’t know what. He’s gonna ask Emperor Laken with a [Message] spell. Do you know where he is, Durene?”
The girl looked up expectantly. Durene, caught off-guard by the stoppage of the flow of words, shook her head.
“South. With Goblins.”
“Why? I ask Da, but he won’t say.”
“I don’t know.”
Chimmy shrugged, and skipped ahead. Durene followed her. The girl was so casual about Riverfarm as it was now. Durene envied her. But—Chimmy had survived the avalanche and even begun to smile within a week of the snows that had claimed her youngest brother. She was tough. She had to be, living out here.
So did Durene. She straightened her back, trying to process all of what Chimmy was saying.
“We’ve got smokehouses, and a place for Mister Helm’s forge, only we’re going to change them because Mister Prost says in the ‘blue-prints’ that he and Emperor Laken came up with—they didn’t account for the winds. So we need to put them downwind or people complain. It’s all good, though. Everyone gets enough to eat and we don’t need to buy food because some of the [Farmers] have [Fast Growth] Skills. One even has [One Day Bloom]!”
Durene’s eyes widened. That was good! Chimmy nodded proudly.
“It’s great, but he’s only one [Farmer]. So Da came up with a great plan. He has Mister Tepple sow all the seeds and the other [Farmers] till the earth and so on or water. That way them with [Fast Growth] make the seeds come up and the ones with growing Skills do other things. See? Da reckons we can be as good as any big farm if we work together! As good as any noble’s lands with lots of farmers on Terandria, Lady Rie says. And all because we’re all here serving under Emperor Laken!”
Durene muttered. Her head was still spinning as she stared around the streets and saw more people lined up. And more and more were getting to work! Four dozen men, all with axes were proceeding down one street. A fellow on a wagon was loaded up and driving it down the street. Women were hauling dirty, muddy clothes in washbasins towards the river—and each basket was piled to the top! Across the street, Durene saw two old men carving a table with…squares and tiny little pieces out of wood. And the fellow with the wagon had more than one of those table lashed to it. He was loading them up, talking to them.
“—Good sales on these thing. I’ll bring back a board of Go so you can copy that too. It’s worth gold if they’re varnished and made all fancy, so long as people don’t realize I’ve got twelve more in the back.”
“Mind getting us more designs? Only so many ways we can make these pretty. We could do more if we had a few good [Artists] instead of that idiot who Prost has painting walls.”
One of the old men grouses as Durene and Chimmy slowed down to watch. The [Trader] laughed as he adjusted his belt. A man with a hooded face bumped his shoulder and the [Trader] frowned at him for a moment. The street was getting crowded and the fellow pushed past the [Woodcutters] who cursed at him good-naturedly.
“I’ll see what I can do. It’s not on the list of things Lady Rie asked me to buy, but she’ll see the sense in it. And with the gold I can bring in with these things—those good-luck charms that Jelov makes aren’t bad either. People like the idea of them. Although they ask if they’re actually the product of a Skill and I can’t answer that.”
“Say they’re blessed by his Majesty. That’s good enough for me. I have one right above my bed when I sleep.”
One of the old men smiled. The other nodded. The [Trader] grinned and so did Durene. She thought she knew him. Either way, he was smiling as he adjusted his belt. He went back to the wagon to load the last chess set up with the [Wagon Driver], and then his eyes widened. His hand flew to his belt.
“My money! Someone stole my money bag!”
Every head turned as Frostwing, alarmed by the scream, took to the air, shrieking herself. Durene’s whipped around. She searched the crowd for the hooded figure who had bumped into the [Trader]. She spotted him, hurrying away.
The [Trader] had seen him too. He pointed and half the [Woodcutters] turned and began to give chase. The hooded man broke into a run. And he was quick—but Durene was already running after him.
“Hey, you, stop!”
Durene bellowed. The man ducked as her voice boomed at him. He turned his head, saw her, and his eyes went round. He turned and sprinted. Durene charged after him, but people were in the way and even leaping aside, she was afraid she’d hit them. The man ducked left, trying to lose his pursuers around a house. Durene rounded it—and saw another street. People stared as she and the [Woodcutters] dashed out into the open.
“There was a man! He stole Trader Gellid’s gold! Where’d he go?”
One of the [Woodcutters] shouted. The people in the street looked around. Durene’s head swiveled, but the hooded man was gone.
“I thought I saw—but he’s nowhere.”
A woman looked around, wide-eyed. Durene cursed. Had the man vanished? Used a Skill? She turned desperately, and saw Chimmy running after her with the breathless [Trader]. They stared around, horrified, at the crowd devoid of hooded figures. Durene clenched her fists helplessly—
And then a shriek tore the air. Everyone ducked as Frostwing, enraged, hurtled out of the air like a blue bolt of lightning. She landed, tearing, pecking, at the very same woman who’d seen the [Thief]!
Durene shouted and began to run forwards. But before she could reach the bird, the woman ducked away, cursing. And her face, her entire body—blurred. The hooded figure ran backwards, shielding his head, cursing at Frostwing.
“That’s the [Thief]! Get him!”
The [Trader] howled. Now the entire street grabbed for the [Thief], but he ran through them, shoving, ducking Frostwing, running faster than anyone could catch up. Durene swore as she ran after him. If she could throw something—he was nearing a break in the crowds, and she had a feeling he was going to make a break for it! He was too quick—
“Watch out! Make way!”
A voice roared to Durene’s left. She drew up as she saw a figure racing at her from the right. A mounted figure. The [Thief] spotted the armored shape rushing down the street on horseback too late. He turned, darting back towards Durene, but the horse galloped into him and tossed him to the ground like a sack of flour. He made a pained cry—the [Rider] turned, leapt from his saddle, and grabbed the [Thief] before he could get back up.
One hand thrust his face into the ground, the other raised a gauntleted fist. As Durene reached the pair, the armored man swung a fist down and the [Thief], struggling, went limp.
“Got him! You bastard, we finally got you!”
The armored figure crowed as he hauled the man up. He yanked the hood off and then swore. Durene, staring, saw the armored helmet go up. A shock of black hair emerged, and a young face. Beniar, sweaty, hair-tangled, stared in shock at the man’s face.
“You? You’re our [Thief]? You bastard!”
He shook the unconscious man. Then he looked up and saw Durene. His eyes widened. Beniar dropped the [Thief].
She reached out. The Silver-rank adventurer strode past his snorting horse and grabbed her up in a hug as fierce as her own.
“Durene! Dead gods, it’s a relief to see you! I heard you were up but I didn’t dare visit—that [Healer] swore she’d stab me if I got near you with a potion again! I’m so sorry! I thought—how are you?”
“I’m fine! Fine!”
Beniar eyed Durene’s chest.
“The infection? It went away? Wiskeria said I shouldn’t pour a potion on it, but I thought—dead gods, she nearly killed me. Everyone did!”
“It’s fine. You didn’t know. I would have done the same thing.”
Durene touched her chest. Beniar’s expression twisted, but then he looked down.
“And here you are! Catching the damn [Thief] who caused us so much trouble for weeks!”
“He did? I mean—I was just there. I saw him grab that [Trader]’s bag. Why are there thieves in Riverfarm? We have nothing to steal!”
Durene was shocked. The adventurer, no, the [Cataphract], just shook his head. He adjusted the full-body plate armor that was a symbol of his class; his steed was likewise enveloped in mail. He cut a fearsome sight, as did the [Riders] who only now caught up to them. Durene saw a band of sixteen riding down the street—seven the way Beniar had come, eight the other way. Clearly this had been a trap.
“You got him, Beniar? Who’s that? Durene?”
One of the [Riders] called out. Then she slid off her horse. More of them exclaimed and Durene saw familiar faces, adventurers and [Soldiers], coming off their horses. They surrounded Durene and then stared and swore as they saw the [Thief].
“The very same. This bastard’s our [Thief]. I’m sure of it!”
Beniar scowled and kicked the comatose [Thief] in the stomach. Hard. The man groaned; Durene winced.
“What’d he do?”
“Only steal from anyone with coin for the last two weeks! Look—he’s got a face-changing Skill! I swore I saw a young man just a second ago.”
Beniar crouched down and showed Durene the man’s face. Durene saw dark brown hair and a beard. She frowned—she could have sworn the [Thief]’s face had been younger, clean-shaven, and light blonde!
“I saw a woman before Frostwing attacked him.”
“That’s how you ratted him out? I was just mounting up with the patrol when I heard the shouts. Lucky!”
Beniar whistled. He looked up as Frostwing, screaming, her beak bloody, swooped down. All the [Riders] ducked and two horses reared; Durene caught Frostwing on one arm and reached out.
“Good girl. Good Frostwing. You were amazing. Stop screaming? Please?”
Miracle of miracles, Frostwing did. She inspected the [Thief], looking very pleased with herself as she cleaned her beak on her plumage. Beniar whistled.
“Frostwing. I haven’t seen her since…yesterday. Prost makes me leave the food out. Durene, did you see Bismarck? That huge bear’s camped out behind your cottage!”
“I was there last night. How come no one fed Frostwing? Why didn’t she go with Laken?”
“It was too dangerous, according to him. They were fighting Goblins. He thought you’d be on your feet in a week. But for me, you would have. And after that—I tried feeding her, but she tried to savage me! But for the armor she’d have taken chunks out of me. You know she’s been hunting too? I saw her kill a fox just last week!”
Beniar reached out to Frostwing. She obligingly pecked at his face and he backed off. Durene soothed the bird again.
“I just woke up, Beniar. This is so much to take in—you know this [Thief]?”
The adventurer, reminded, scowled and looked down.
“Know him? He’s a big shot from Lancrel. Ah—they’re one of the big groups that came to Riverfarm when you were asleep. Those bastards are always saying they should have more of a say. They want to vote a [Mayor] in place of Prost—they keep saying that as if we don’t have an [Emperor]! But they’ve never seen Laken. His Majesty. Apparently this fellow was part of their leadership. Well, looks like he was just a dirty [Thief] again!”
He went to kick the man with a big windup, and one of the [Riders], an adventurer who’d been part of the Celestial Trackers, stopped him.
“Save it, Beniar! Let’s get this idiot tossed in the stocks or to Lady Rie or Mister Prost. They can sort it out. Elmmet’s one of Lancrel’s big leaders. [Thief] or not, they see you kicking here and there will be another fight.”
“So? We’re keeping order! They want a fight? Let them get some swords and we’ll have it out!”
Beniar snapped back, but his hot-temper cooled as he looked at Durene. He spat on Elmmet and shook his head.
“You’re right, Alvais. And we have to patrol. One—no, two of you take Elmmet straight to Prost. Anyone asks, you don’t answer! Don’t stop until he’s there and in chains! The rest of you, mount up! We need to sweep the road! I’ll get the gold back to Trader Gellid, but we need to check the roads before he takes them. Those [Bandits]…”
The other riders nodded. They began mounting their own horses as Beniar strode over to his. He paused, then turned back to Durene.
“Sorry, Durene. But we’ve got to ride. There’s a [Bandit] group hitting the roads and without Laken, we need to escort everyone there. I’ll catch you tonight, yeah?”
“Of course. It’s great to see you, Beniar. But—[Bandits]? [Thieves]? What’s happened?”
Durene waved at the limp man being hoisted over a saddle horn. One of the [Riders] shouted for the crowd who’d gathered to watch to make away. Beniar glanced at the sea of faces and Durene, turning, caught them as well. She jumped to see how many were just…watching. More people than Riverfarm had ever held were staring at her and Beniar. And the [Thief]. Frostwing flapped her wings uneasily. Beniar nodded at the crowd.
“That happened. It’s crazy. Once that Lord Veltras showed up, things quieted down. But people just kept pouring in. Without a home. And with Emperor Laken gone, everything’s a bit…off, you know?”
Durene nodded quietly. Beniar put his helmet back down and shook his head.
“When he gets back everything’ll be alright. Until then—I’m glad you’re back. Talk to Prost and see if you can join up with us. We could use your strength, Durene.”
“Fighting? Wiskeria told me she resigned. Where’s the army?”
Beniar paused. He slid his visor up and looked soberly at Durene.
“Besides the militia? We’re all of it. We need Wiskeria back. I can’t do this alone. Tell her that, would you?”
He nodded at Durene. Then he turned and galloped away. Durene watched him go. Then she found Chimmy in the crowd. Beniar wheeled his mount and roared.
“Darksky Riders, with me!”
They galloped off. Silently, Durene let Chimmy lead her back and the crowd, moving out of her way, decided to get to their jobs as well. The girl found her father seeing to the [Thief]. The two [Riders] were hauling him to a house and Prost’s disgusted look turned to one of relief when he saw Durene and his daughter.
“Chimmy! Durene! I heard about the thief. It was Master Elmmet all this time? Disgusting. The man was a [Councilman]! That disgusting, Creler-sucking—and what’s worse, Lancrel’s folk are already saying he’s been set up!”
He swore, and Chimmy, listening, glowered just as fiercely as her father. Prost noticed her watching and turned red. He coughed.
“Chimmy, thank you for bringing Durene to me. Go back and help the [cooks] now, or your mother and the [Washer] teams. There’s a good girl.”
“Aw, Da! But I could help Durene out! She doesn’t know where to go and I—”
“Back to work, Chimmy!”
The girl went, sulkily, pausing to wave at Durene. Prost closed his eyes. He looked tired and the sun was barely up. Durene looked in the direction of the [Thief].
“That was really a [Councilman]?”
“City folk. They don’t know their own neighbors.”
Prost sighed disgustedly. He ran a hand through his greying hair then looked at Durene.
“I heard you helped catch the [Thief]. Thank you, Durene. We don’t have much, but what we do have that bastard took. He stole gold from people who had only that after losing everything, raided our stocks until we started putting locks up and guards…it’s a nightmare.”
He passed his hand across his face.
“At least this stops one of the problems. There are more [Thieves] than him—and fights. Dead gods. Someone died in a brawl a week back. It’s madness, Durene. But Beniar and his [Riders] keep the peace.”
“I met him. He said he’s all that’s left of the army. Is that true?”
Durene anxiously looked at Prost. He nodded.
“Did you hear? Wiskeria resigned from being a [General] after the battle. Not that I blame her—she stays out of Riverfarm for the most part. Most people understand she wasn’t to blame, what with whoever sent that [Message], but there’s a lot of folk who’ll throw stones just as soon as look at her.”
“We need an army. If we have [Bandits] and—and [Thieves], we need more people! I’ll help! I just need a weapon and my shield.”
Durene looked at Prost. He half-nodded, then switched it to a shake of the head.
“Wiskeria won’t budge. And we don’t need more [Soldiers], Durene. What we need—according to Lady Rie, that is—is [Guardsmen]. A proper City Watch, according to her.”
“Well, maybe I can help. If there are thieves stealing from your warehouses, point me to them. I can stand guard. Give me a club—I’ll just use a fist.”
Durene made one. Prost eyed it and shook his head again, briskly.
“They’re [Thieves], Durene. Not brigands or murderers. If you hit one of them—remember that fellow who was robbing houses around Riverfarm a while back? He tried your cottage and you caught him.”
He looked at Durene, and her face went slack as she remembered.
“Four years ago. Yeah, I remember. I hit him.”
“More than once. He was half-dead when we found him. Broken bones in his face; even the [Healer] thought he might not make it. I know he was a [Thief], but dead gods, Durene, I was terrified of you back then. I wouldn’t want people to think of—well, with so many not knowing you—”
Prost stumbled over his words, looking at her carefully. The half-Troll girl just stared back. She touched her chest slowly.
“Scared of me? Back then—I was terrified, Mister Prost. It was a [Thief] with a dagger! He tried to stab me and I was so scared I kept hitting him—maybe you thought I went too far, but I was so frightened! I cried for three days and didn’t leave my cottage once after he was taken away. And no one came by to tell me he was gone.”
The [Steward] stared up at Durene. His jaw opened and he worked it soundlessly. Closed it. His voice was strangled.
“That’s odd. I don’t remember that. We were so focused on whether he’d live or die that…”
He looked up at Durene and an expression of shame flashed across his face.
“I’m sorry. Dead gods, I never thought of that. Back then…”
“You didn’t call for me unless you needed me to lift something. I get it.”
Durene crossed her arms. On her shoulder, Frostwing screamed softly. Prost hung his head.
“That’s the truth. But hear me, Durene: if we were unkind, it’s nothing compared to these city folk. They bother me, some of them. Lady Rie’s good at handling the Lancrel lot especially—they look up to her, but it only goes so far. We are in control. But until his Majesty gets back, neither Rie nor I want to upset this lot. The people who know his majesty are about a third of Riverfarm now. And there are good people among the new ones. But…”
“I get it.”
The girl exhaled slowly. She’d seen the looks she’d been getting. Prost patted her shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Durene. There’s plenty of need for your strength outside of keeping us safe from [Thieves]. I’ve got two dozen former [Sentries] and [Watchmen] and so on guarding what needs guarding. Shame more of them didn’t come to Riverfarm, but I suppose they though there was no job for them here. Hah! That’ll change. But for now, we could use your help building houses or clearing new ground.”
Durene forced a smile onto her face.
“Sure. I’ll be glad to. Although I need some time to repair my cottage if I’m living there. It’s a mess. Water’s damaged my floor—and Frostwing and Bismarck have torn it apart.”
“Agh. I know we should have kept it up. But those two scared everyone away—it’s good to see you managed to get to Frostwing. Poor bird.”
Prost nodded at Frostwing. The ‘poor bird’ eyed the man, then casually raised one leg and evacuated her bowels onto Durene’s shoulder. Both girl and man stared at the bird. Frostwing rubbed her beak affectionately on Durene’s cheek. Durene threw up her arms.
Some things were new. Like a town full of staring people. Other things never changed. A cottage was a cottage. You fixed it up the same way. Prost was only too happy to direct Durene to whatever supplies she needed and an ecstatic Chimmy was brought off dish-washing duty to help out. The [Steward] also showed Durene to some spots she could be helpful, like [Woodcutters] excavating stumps to make more farmland.
“Honestly, you’ll be useful in any spot you want to go, but I’ve no notion of ordering you about. You’re still waking up and you’re…you. You do what needs doing. Cottage first, and then wherever you need to be.”
The [Steward] nodded deferentially to Durene. She felt odd, seeing the [Woodcutters] looking at her and appraising her. Everyone jumped when Prost gave the orders—he and Rie ran this place, but he wasn’t going to give her orders? Embarrassed, she pulled at a tree stump and yanked it and a mountain of dirt up. Of course, that made the [Woodcutters] just stare harder. It was a rare sort of girl who could pull up an entire root system one-handed.
Cottage first, with food, nails, a cart of wood, a replacement ladder, and broom. Durene spent six hours fixing up everything, giving Bismarck a permanent home, and relocating Frostwing’s nest, much to the bird’s displeasure. The Mossbear hadn’t moved much since Durene had left him there; indeed, he seemed content to just laze about and eat.
“I suppose that’s heaven for a bear. But you need to work. Do something!”
Exasperated, Durene stared at Bismarck. He just opened one eye and huffed. She could sense the contentment rolling off him. This was the life. Glowering, she poked him with the broom handle until he moved so she could sweep his pellets out of the way.
But mainly, Durene was just glad to be doing something. Her work on the cottage occupied most of her day, and only when evening fell did Durene realize she had nothing more she really needed to do here. She looked at her repaired home, shook her head, and then thought of Riverfarm. Immediately, the mountain of problems crashed down on her shoulders—and she knew that she didn’t know all of what ailed the town!
“It’s too much. How can I help? I can pull some stumps up, or hit a [Thief]. But I’m not Rie. Or Prost. Or even Beniar.”
Durene sat outside, feeding Frostwing a snack. The bird shrieked happily and Durene winced. She looked down at her hands, and then thought about something.
“[Bandits]? Prost might be right about needing a City Watch. But [Bandits]? That’s too much. Beniar and his [Riders] can’t handle [Bandits] alone, can they?”
Maybe they could. Or maybe they couldn’t. But imagining him and his few dozen riders (had they expanded or lost members since the battle?) faced against another enemy like the Goblins gave Durene shudders. That decided her. Rather than go and help out, she put away her tools, let Frostwing hop on the padded cloth shoulder pad that was extremely washable, and set off in search of Wiskeria.
She found the [Witch] in the same place she’d found her yesterday. In the graveyard. This time, Wiskeria wasn’t alone. Black shapes had descended and landed on the gravestones all around her. Not ravens either. This time it was crows. A flock of them.
Durene froze as she stepped into the cemetery. The voice issued from dozens of beaks, a cawing, calling sound. The only sound in that silent place. The crow’s beady eyes locked on the [Witch], dressed in the same blue robes and hat as yesterday. Wiskeria stood among them, her back straight.
“No. I told you, no. Tell your mistress that. Tell them! Mavika! I won’t go! I know you’re listening! Tell them! Please!”
The crows didn’t like that answer. They took wing and flew around Wiskeria, in a tight circle.
She shouted at them. But that only enraged them more. A crow darted out. It snapped its beak and Wiskeria ducked. Another struck her hat with talons. A third struck Wiskeria from behind an she staggered. Durene, frozen, gasped; blood was running from the back of Wiskeria’s head. A crow darted again at Wiskeria’s cheek and drew blood; the [Witch] jerked. If she hadn’t the beak might have struck her eye.
“You can’t force me! I know the rules! I have to make things right here!”
This time the cawing voices were blended. And the voice that spoke didn’t sound like a crow’s mockery of language. It sounded…different. Not Human. But not an animal’s sound either. A mix of the two.
The circling crows tightened around Wiskeria, biting, clawing. She shielded her face.
She sank down as the claws dragged at her robes, and the murder of crows descended, landing, pecking. It was at that moment that Durene couldn’t hold back. She surged forwards, shouting and waving her arms.
“Hey! Get lost! Begone!”
The crows turned on her. It was so fast that Durene only saw them covering Wiskeria then flying at her face. She shielded her eyes reflexively and shouted as dozens of beaks began hammering at her skin. Her body was tougher than Wiskeria’s, but the screaming bird were terrifying. Birds didn’t act like this!
“Get off! Get—”
Durene flailed, but although she struck a few forms, the birds refused to abate. Wiskeria was shouting something. Durene felt a flash of heat and a crow screamed. They turned on both girls. And then, above them, Frostwing shrieked and dove.
The press of bodies broke up at once. The crows fled as Frostwing, shrieking louder than Durene had heard her yet, smashed into a crow. They turned to mob her, but Frostwing was quick! She struck with talons and beak and flashed upwards, nearly as fast on the ascent as diving. The crows tried to follow, but Frostwing dove again, and the crack as she struck a second crow sent the bird crumpling on top of a grave, neck twisted.
That was enough. The crows fled. Frostwing, victorious, followed them and then returned at Durene’s panicked call. She alighted, tearing at one of the two dead crows. Shakily, Durene lowered her arms. She was cut lightly on her skin. Wiskeria, getting up, was bloodied. Red ran down the back of her head.
“I’m fine. I’m fine. I just need a bit of healing potion. Not even that.”
The [Witch] shakily readjusted her hat. She looked at the crows that Frostwing was tearing into and shuddered.
“I didn’t think she’d go that far. And two of her crows are dead. She’ll be furious.”
“Who will? What was that?”
Durene was still shaken from the attack. She stared at Wiskeria. The [Witch] inhaled, looking just as shaken. She nodded off to one side.
“Let’s—let’s clean up the feathers. And the birds. I don’t want them staying here if someone comes to look.”
A few minutes of picking up later, and the two young women stood on the road to Durene’s cottage. Wiskeria was still breathing heavily. So was Durene, for that matter. The [Witch] shook her head as she watched Frostwing cleaning her bloody beak.
“Dead gods. I knew that birds like Frostwing were hunters, but I didn’t know they could kill one of Mavika’s flock.”
“Mavika? Who’s that? Does she own the birds?”
“That’s right. She sent them to get me. Or threaten me, really. She’s not happy I’m not agreeing to join her. I know I should, but right now—I can’t. The coven can join without me. It’s not like I matter.”
Durene was lost. But the word was…familiar. In a vague way. Wiskeria nodded. She took a breath.
“Durene. You know that I’m a [Witch]?”
“Well. I’m part of a coven. That’s a group of [Witches] that meets every few months. It’s…well, I suppose you could say it’s part of my class. I know most classes don’t have that, but we do.”
“A coven. I think I’ve heard of them. I’ve never actually met a [Witch] before you. And you’re not like—”
Durene closed her mouth. Wiskeria smiled shortly, eying her as she dapped at the blood on the back of her neck with a wet handkerchief.
“What? Like all the stories?”
“I don’t know many.”
Durene lied. She knew a few, even though she didn’t go to Riverfarm. But they were all old stories, like the [Witch] who gave a hero an enchanted brew to help him fight the evil [Warlock]. Or the [Witch] who poisoned the fair [Damsel] until a [Knight] or [Prince] could wake her with a kiss. But she didn’t mention that. Nor did she need to. One quirk of Wiskeria’s lips said that she saw through Durene’s lie.
“Everyone has stories about [Witches]. I’m afraid we’re common in old stories.”
“Are they true?”
Durene blurted that out. And she saw Wiskeria hesitate.
“Most of them are. I can’t fly on a broom, for instance. I can do a number of things. Cast spells, like that fire I threw at the crows, brew things, and so on. But I’m afraid a lot of stories are exaggerated. Or about high-level [Witches]. I’m neither.”
It was a bit rude to talk about levels. Embarrassed, Durene studied her feet. She wore nice, sturdy boots, most of the time, but she only had one pair so sandals were her other option. She could make them herself and her feet’s soles were tough. Durene thought about dropping the matter since Wiskeria looked just as uncomfortable But she couldn’t help it.
“The crows. Do they belong to the [Witch]? Mavika? I heard of [Witches] owning black cats.”
“Some own other animals. It’s part of our class. Mavika’s…she’s a strong [Witch]. And she can make her crows talk, or carry messages or do things. It’s not like being a [Beast Tamer]. But she’s powerful. I don’t want to make her mad, but she’s insisting I join the coven and I don’t want to. I also don’t have to, no matter what she thinks.”
Wiskeria answered cautiously. Durene was puzzled.
“Why do you need to go to a coven in the first place?”
That seemed to be the wrong question. Wiskeria looked a bit insulted and tugged on her hat’s brim.
“I am a [Witch], even if I’m low-level compared to most. Witches have to have a coven. It stands to reason.”
“A witch should not be alone. We’re too few. And our power isn’t in just casting spells like [Mages]. Or—or potions or animals or any one thing. We’re strongest in our coven. Besides, those are the old ways. And [Witches]—we’re all old ways.”
Wiskeria murmured to herself. She seemed to be repeating something from memory. Durene just blinked at her. There was a faraway look in Wiskeria’s eyes. Then she shook herself.
“But again, I don’t have to be there. I can miss a coven meeting and everyone knows that. There must be something important if Mavika wants me to go so badly. Or it’s just her. She’s really into the old ways.”
“I saw that. But can’t you go? It’s not as if…well, it’s not as if you’re being a [General] here, are you?”
Durene hesitated before saying that, but she did say it. Wiskeria tensed up, but Durene didn’t look away. Wiskeria took a deep breath.
“I told you—”
“Beniar says he can’t handle everything alone. We need an army, Wiskeria. Remember the Goblins? What if they come again?”
The [Witch] tugged distractedly on her hat, then adjusted her spectacles.
“I know that. I know. But I just—I can’t do it. I’m just here because…if need be, I could come back. But only then.”
“If need be? You mean, you’re waiting for a disaster!”
Durene’s brows shot together. Wiskeria raised her palms defensively.
“I don’t want to! But I’m the only [General]. You’re right. But no one would trust me! Don’t you think I know that too! If I’m needed, I’ll do what I can. Until then—”
“You should take command now! We need you! Laken needs you! Prost could use someone to chase down [Bandits], to help—”
“I can’t. Durene. I can’t do it. I can’t face them after I got their family, their children killed—”
Wiskeria raised her voice.
“Well, what are you doing? Sitting in a graveyard, fighting with crows?”
“What else can I do? I’m pelted with rocks when I go into the village. Don’t you think I’m sorry? I want to make things right! I want to—”
Frostwing screamed and both girls jumped. Durene realized she was shouting. Wiskeria had been too. Flushed, the [Witch] covered her face with her hat. Durene felt at her red cheeks. But she wasn’t ashamed. She meant what she’d said.
“How long until the coven?”
“When the two moons are full. We meet then, so it’s not every month. But it’s easy to tell if you know the stars. This time it’s in—”
Wiskeria broke off. She stared at Durene.
“That’s correct. How do you know that?”
“When the two moons are full, right? I’m a village girl. I know how the moons work.”
The half-Troll girl shrugged. Wiskeria nodded slowly.
“Then that’s when. Don’t worry. Mavika won’t force me again. Not after losing two of her crows. Some of the others might try, but I can say no.”
“If you say so.”
Uneasily, Durene looked back in the direction of the graveyard. Then back at Wiskeria.
“Are you sure you won’t…?”
“I’m sure. If I thought I could, I’d try. But I see how they looked at me. I promised Laken—Emperor Laken, that I’d be his [General]. But until he comes back and decides what to do with me, I’ll stay here. And…help.”
Unhappily, Wiskeria gestured around. Back at the graveyard. Durene realized that was why it was so clean. And she saw, in the distance, the first family walking into it, heads bowed. Mother, two sons, a man, perhaps an uncle or grandfather. But from the way they walked, no father. Wiskeria bowed her head silently. She looked so thin, so faded standing there. Durene couldn’t help it. She transferred Frostwing to her other arm and reached for Wiskeria.
“Do you want to eat at my cottage tonight?”
The [Witch] looked up. Durene pointed.
“It’s just up the way. I don’t know what you eat. In the village? It must be harder.”
“I don’t eat there. I forage for myself. It’s not hard.”
Wiskeria muttered. Durene stared at her. She knew there were…roots and berries and such, but she doubted Wiskeria could land more than small game with so many people and [Hunters] about. No wonder she was so thin!
“Come with me. I’ve got food from Prost. We can eat there. And you can sleep in my cottage.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not? I’ve got…one bed. But I can sleep on the ground!”
“I have a tent.”
“Then put it up in my garden. Bismarck snores, but you—I can roll him over. Come on.”
Bullying, cajoling, and then switching back to bullying, Durene got Wiskeria to show her the small tent she’d pitched not far from here. Durene yanked up the pegs, grabbed the tent and Wiskeria, and practically carried both under her arms to her cottage. There she made food. It wasn’t much; just a stew with some meat. Stews were big in Riverfarm, owing to how many people there were. But there was a loaf of fresh-baked bread that everyone, including Frostwing and Bismarck, wanted a piece of.
Wiskeria ate almost as hungrily as Durene, and the girl was glad to see some color enter her pale cheeks. She refused Durene’s bed, which was just as well; the tent would only fit Wiskeria. The [Witch] went to bed silently as Durene washed up and Frostwing lay in her nest, pecking at one of the crow’s heads. Durene shuddered when she came back from letting Bismarck lick her pot clean.
“Frostwing, get rid of it. Come on. Be a good girl.”
The bird didn’t want to give up her prize. She pecked at Durene, and the half-Troll girl, grimacing, picked up the head. She carried it outside, ignoring Frostwing’s scream-crying. Durene walked away from Wiskeria’s tent, which the [Witch] seemed already asleep, and pitched her arm back. The crow’s head was wet and slimy in her grasp. And as she aimed, she felt its beak move in her grip.
Durene dropped the crow’s head and shouted in horror. The head landed on the ground. She saw the staring eye turn up at her. Something looked through the disemboweled head. The beak opened.
Durene’s sandal smashed the head into the ground. She stomped twice more, feeling the fragile bones and skull crunch. Durene didn’t care. She stomped again and again, until, panting, she stared at the mess on the ground. The fragments of beak made no sound.
Shuddering, Durene backed up. Her skin crawled. She walked back into the cottage and grabbed a shovel. With it in hand she went back and dug up some soil. When the hole was deep—four feet—Durene tossed the remains of the head inside and covered it, pressing the earth down. When that was done she went back to the cottage.
“What was that shout?”
Wiskeria poked her head out of her tent. Her hat was off her head for once, and her expression was blearily. She must have woken back up. Durene eyed her face, and opened her mouth.
She began to lie. Then she remembered that a disembodied crow’s head had come to life in her hands and talked to her. So Durene pointed back at the patch of soil.
“One of the crow’s heads—it came to life and said your name. In my hand. Wiskeria. Come. I smashed it.”
Wiskeria’s sleepy gaze sharpened. She stared at Durene. The girl shuddered and wiped her hand on her tunic. The [Witch] was silent.
“Well? Is that other [Witch] of yours—is she going to do anything?”
“I think that was it. She can probably still use crows when they’re dead. Or it was some other spell. Crows…well, some of us know necromancy too.”
“Necromancy? You mean you use the undead? Like the Necromancer? From the stories? Az—”
Durene recoiled in horror. Wiskeria shook her head rapidly, noting the shock on the half-Troll girl’s face.
“We’re not [Necromancers]! Absolutely not! No [Witch] I know has any levels in [Necromancer]!”
She pulled her head into her tent. Durene exhaled in relief. She got back to bed slowly, wiping her hands many times. Frostwing snoozed in her nest and outside, Bismarck’s gentle snoring was even comforting. It was only after Durene was dozing off that she realized that Wiskeria hadn’t really answered her question at all.
Day 53 – Durene
The next day drizzled for a bit before Durene woke up, but the sky was clear when she got up. She knew it had rained from the smell in the air, though. And Wiskeria’s wet tent. It was waterproof, so the wan [Witch] had gotten her sleep. She met Durene in robes much like yesterday’s. Exactly like yesterday’s, in fact. Durene eyed them.
“Don’t you have other clothes?”
“I have another change. But I lost most of my things when we fled the Goblins. It’s fine. I cleaned the blood and the rest off with a cleaning charm.”
It was true, the robes were clean. But that didn’t disguise the fact that they smelled lived-in. And the holes. Durene decided what Wiskeria needed was new clothes. The [Witch] disagreed.
“It’s how I dress! It’s how all [Witches] dress!”
“They smell! And you need a bath! You don’t need to borrow my clothes! Just get some new ones! I’ll get them for you! I’ll even get more robes!”
Wiskeria eventually agreed when she realized Durene was close to stripping her and throwing her in her tub herself. But she was adamant on one point.
“Not my hat! My hat stays where it is! A [Witch] has to have her hat!”
Durene agreed to leave it. She helped Wiskeria fill the tub from a stream with cold water. Durene was about to suggest letting the water warm in the sun when Wiskeria poked her wand into the tub. Durene saw a flash of light, and the water became steaming. She narrowed her eyes at Wiskeria’s smug expression and thought of all the cold baths she’d had to endure.
Silently, Durene handed Wiskeria her soap and slapped Bismarck when he tried to eat it. The Mossbear, affronted, stared at the naked Wiskeria who covered herself protectively and at Durene. Seeing nothing of interest, he went back to sleep.
“I’ll get someone to clean your robes. And be back with new ones.”
“What? What if someone comes up and I’m naked?”
Wiskeria yelped and grabbed for Durene, but the girl was already trotting away. Durene turned and waved with her other hand as Frostwing decided to sip from Wiskeria’s tub rather than accompany her.
“Hide in Bismarck’s fur! Or dance around naked! Isn’t that what [Witches] do?”
“Stupid girls do that! No [Witch] I know will dance about naked anywhere! In a forest? Do you want insects biting you everywhere?”
The [Witch] shouted back. Durene, smiling, just headed into Riverfarm.
“Wash? I can wash this. But—ergh! I’ll have to put it in the men’s pile. It’s too foul to go with the good linens.”
Miss Yesel recoiled when she saw and smelled Wiskeria’s robe. It turned out that Wiskeria either couldn’t smell or didn’t know that her cleaning spell only got the outer side of the robe. Durene wrinkled her nose.
“That’ll be fine, Miss Yesel. Can I have some uh, robes? I need them for Wiskeria.”
Mister Prost’s wife paused as she put the blue robes in a pile of strongly-scented clothing. Some of the other [Washers] doing the ceaseless job of scrubbing the clothing by the river looked up. A shadow flickered over Miss Yesel’s face.
“Wiskeria? Of course I can get some robes. Is she staying at your cottage?”
“That’s right. Is that a problem?”
Yesel drew the word out as she found some robes for Durene. And the look in her eye told Durene the answer was yes. She had much the same expression she used to have when she’d see Durene in the village. Come to think of it—the woman treated Durene with respect, but she hadn’t ever apologized liked Prost had. Maybe for her there was nothing to apologize for. Either way, Durene didn’t feel as comfortable around the woman as Ram or Prost.
“It’s good that you did the delivery. Not that I’d turn anyone with such dirty clothing away, much less Wiskeria. But she isn’t much beloved in Riverfarm. Of course, a good number of those Lancrel troublemakers can’t stop running their mouths, but even Emperor Laken’s folk…”
She meant the original three villages that had come together under Laken’s banner. Durene nodded, but without any agreement.
“I understand that. But Wiskeria did her best. She was tricked! And it wasn’t her fault. We all fought. If we’d been—I’d been.”
She fell silent. Miss Yesel opened her mouth and cast a glance over her shoulder. Some of the [Washer] women were silent, or as pale-faced as Wiskeria had been in the graveyard. She clapped her hands briskly.
“Time’s been enough for maybes and if onlys, Durene, my dear. You did your best and no one faults you. Or Miss Wiskeria. It’s just as it is. Take some robes from that basket. We have enough and I’ll settle the complaints.”
She helped Wiskeria find some green robes that would probably clash with Wiskeria’s blue pointed hat. But Durene didn’t bother arguing. She was walking away from the river when she saw a woman in a dress sweeping towards her, with a burly man at her side.
“Durene! I hoped to see you! Do you have a moment?”
It was Lady Rie. Durene hadn’t seen her for a long time. Two days, in fact. The [Lady] briskly walked over despite the dress she wore. Her shoes were fancy but built for walking, and the dress she wore was green and had some kind of cobweb pattern in white near the bottom. It suited her very well, and the envious looks the other women gave her was proof enough. Durene didn’t care. Laken liked her.
And it was a mark of the changing times that Durene’s first response wasn’t to stiffen when Rie appeared, but actually relax and want to speak with her. The half-Troll girl eyed the big man accompanying Rie. He was…
Rie noticed Durene’s look. She turned to the man.
“This is Geram, Durene. You remember? My captain of the guard in my estates. He’s escorting me as my…assistant at the moment. He’s quite good at commanding attention.”
Geram, big, brawny, and unfortunately, bald, was certainly all that. A former [Fistfighter] of some renown, his scarred knuckles were a work of art in themselves. And a threat. The man eyed Durene at the same time as she appraised him. And he didn’t seem to like what he saw. He bowed slightly.
“Ah, Geram. I think Durene is quite safe enough for me to talk to. Go find Nesor and make sure he’s not being bombarded with requests for [Message] spells. I told him to keep up.”
The woman politely turned to Geram. He hesitated, but then inclined his head. He strode off. Durene turned to Rie.
“You’re worried about being attacked?”
Rie smiled. She had a lovely mouth, lips colored green to match her dress today. Durene wondered who she was making the effort for. Rie nodded in the direction Geram had gone.
“Not at all. But a [Lady] must be protected. And there was that incident with Master Elmmet the other day. Terrible business.”
She raised her voice slightly. Durene noticed some of the [Washer] women nodding, and other hesitating visibly. Rie glanced at Durene and then pointed delicately further upstream.
“I wouldn’t want to trouble Miss Yesel and the women about their work, though, Durene. Would you like to chat?”
Durene walked up the river a bit with Rie. This was an open spot; she could see [Farmers] in the distance, working with plow horses to cover more ground while other [Farmers] checked the crops. They were indeed already sprouting, and so quickly! Durene felt a flash of excitement. Rie just regarded the farms with a critical eye.
“Not bad. We’ve harvested once and I hope to do it again. It’s eased the pressure of feeding everyone, but even with our current fields, I’d like to double what’s there.”
Durene’s eyes widened. She imagined how much food the current acreage could produce. Enough to feed old Riverfarm for a year, probably! But Rie just sighed.
“This is probably enough to feed the current Riverfarm and have some left over, but what about later in the year? To sell? To stockpile? We need runes of preservation or some other storage system, or simply to acquire cats and weevil-proof a storehouse. But this is simply not enough any way you look at it. Unless you think a [Farmer] can make these fields twice as productive with the right Skills?”
“I—maybe. I wasn’t a good [Farmer]. I had good Skills, but I only had a small garden.”
Durene shook her head. Rie sighed.
“Well, Riverfarm is my responsibility and Mister Prost, who knows a lot about farming, shares my opinion. And food is but one of the resources Riverfarm lacks. I can make up for whatever shortcomings there are in our resources with my estates’ income, but I will be glad of some assistance from his Majesty. When he finally returns.”
She pursed her lips, not bothering to conceal her displeasure. And Durene, unwillingly, felt a jolt of pleasure at Rie’s expression.
“You think him taking so long is bad too?”
“Taking Goblin prisoners? Not joining Lord Tyrion and the other nobility, who have already returned to their estates? If there were a map of the wrong decisions to make, I’d say Emperor Laken had charted us a splendid course on it. But he must have his reasons, not least because he’s abandoned you in your time of need.”
Rie looked directly at Durene. The half-Troll girl flushed, with pride or embarrassment she couldn’t say. Rie was so direct!
“I—you didn’t act like this before.”
“Before, I was content that things were going well. This is not the time for petty games. Or haven’t you noticed how perilous Riverfarm is? I’m sure Prost is aware, even if he downplays the situation.”
Rie’s voice was low. Unconsciously, Durene bent to address the considerably shorter woman.
“I uh, did. Do you mean you lied about not needing a bodyguard?”
“Of course I did. Go around unescorted? When the first bands of people started arriving I told Geram to watch me day and night. Many are simply desperate for a place to live. That is bad enough, but some are dangerous. You’ve heard there had been fights.”
“Prost…mentioned it. But I thought—”
“The folk of the city the Goblins sacked—Lancrel—regard their destroyed city as Emperor Laken’s fault. In his absence, several members of their ruling council seem to believe they deserve a voice in how Riverfarm is run. But for my presence and Mister Prost’s respect, I think they would try to replace him. By force.”
Durene felt a chill. She looked back towards the village, as if she could see the Lancrel people. Then she remembered the ones who stared at her and called her a monster. Rie nodded tightly.
“Are you surprised? People who have lost power want it back. Desperately. And the only thing holding them back from behaving…well, it is my position as [Lady], the unity of Riverfarm and the country folk, and the presence of Beniar and his Darksky Riders is keeping order. But one disaster can fan the flames…this business with Master Elmmet may be a problem in itself.”
“He’s a [Thief]. I saw him changing his appearance. I didn’t know he could even do that.”
Durene shuddered. Rie just scowled.
“Level 30 [Thief]. Probably [Master of Faces] as a Skill. The problem is that his people don’t want to admit he is the scum he’s proven himself to be. They dislike being forced to work with ‘common’ [Farmers]. At least, the former upper classes do.”
“So kick them out! They don’t want to work? They can leave!”
Durene’s sharp tone made Rie smile. She flicked a lock of gleaming, dark purple hair out of her eyes. That was another thing Laken had never noticed because Durene had never told him. She wasn’t sure if Rie dyed it, or if it was one of those rare hair colors that was the byproduct of some magical accident or bloodline, but a sultry, smooth-skinned [Lady] with purple flowing hair and impeccable dress sense was too much for Durene.
“If only it were that simple, Durene. I’m afraid that even if a revolt didn’t start if we attempted to oust the dissidents, they would quickly turn into a hostile group. As bad as—no, worse than the [Bandits]. And I fear more Lancrel folk are flocking to Riverfarm, not least because many are already here, but because some see the opportunity this group does.”
“They want Riverfarm. That’s so—”
The [Lady] was nodding.
“It’s not all of them. Many are content to work here. It’s only a small core, a hundred, perhaps two, that are truly incorrigible.”
“Impossible to work with. The rest are just frightened. They believe what the others say, that the Goblins were a ruse or manipulated by Laken to attack the city. Rumors of his ability to find monsters on the road have sadly been turned against him. Obviously, he didn’t protect cities who didn’t declare themselves for him, like Lancrel! And—there’s you. And Wiskeria, I’m afraid.”
“Because I’m half-Troll and Wiskeria’s the one who lost the battle.”
Durene folded her arms, but she wasn’t mad. Rie was speaking the truth. And it was refreshing. The [Lady] nodded, tapping one foot. Geram had returned with the pale, nervous Nesor, and the two were patiently waiting by the [Washer] women, some of whom were admiring Geram or teasing Nesor.
“Prejudices. I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you. It doesn’t help that Wiskeria is also a [Witch]. Riverfarm has never had a [Witch], or so I understand. But they do crop up across the continent in remote villages for the most part. And their reputation—”
Durene snorted. But she saw Rie’s gaze flicker in the direction of Durene’s cottage.
“That is the least of it. I’m sure Wiskeria is honorable. She was not the traitor. That—[Maid] of Magnolia Reinhart was. But her class is…well, I had reservations when I learned she was Emperor Laken’s [General]. I trust his judgment. But [Witches] in general…”
Durene opened her mouth, and then she thought of the crow’s head from yesterday. She closed her mouth. Rie flicked her eyes to her, and then looked around.
“I don’t want to keep you too long. The washer ladies will be suspicious if we chat overmuch anyways. But I do wish to speak with you, Durene. If you could convince Wiskeria to take on her role as [General]—”
“You want her back?”
“Do I want an army? Yes. And I should very much like to arm you, Miss Durene. It may agitate some of the Lancrel folk, but they will think twice about anything when they see you fight. Moreover, it might discourage these [Bandits] who are raiding. They’re desperate—most likely hungry as opposed to avaricious—but they’re no less deadly.”
“I’ll see what I can do. But I need to talk to Mister Helm for armor and the like.”
Durene refused to ask what avaricious meant. She could guess. Rie smiled and laid a hand on Durene’s shoulder.
“It is good to see you awake. And I hope you can rise to your class in Emperor Laken’s absence. I will call on you later. Until then—I have to work against Lancrel by keeping them squabbling with each other. And busy.”
She swept off. Durene stared at Rie and rubbed her arm. Rie’s hands were soft. She must use oil on them or something. The half-Troll girl watched her rejoin her companions, and then realized she was still holding Wiskeria’s robes. Guiltily, Durene hurried back towards her cottage.
Rise to her class. She was a [Paladin]. But she didn’t feel like one. Durene sighed as she strode up the cottage’s path. She wondered if, sometimes soon, Riverfarm would put dozens of houses along the lonely walk. It certainly seemed like the village was expanding and while they hadn’t gone up into the beginnings of the mountain’s foothills, there was only so far you wanted to expand across the flats and forests, right? Unless they were going to build walls to keep it all safe?
Laken would know. Laken would know so much. And without him here, Durene felt like she wasn’t doing anything of value. She was lost without him. And that fact bothered her. He had changed her life, as easily as she had ripped that door out of the wall. Now that he was gone, Durene didn’t know what to do with herself.
“Something. I can help without him. I have to. Otherwise, Riverfarm might not be here before he gets back. I have to do something. But what? I’m a Level 16 [Paladin]—what can I do? Fight? Fight what?”
The girl stomped up the hill. Then she heard a shout from the cottage. A female voice, raised—and a male one. Durene stopped, and then she charged up the hill.
Wiskeria was shouting and Frostwing was screaming when Durene got to her cottage at a run. But the scene wasn’t what she expected. A young man wearing a Runner’s insignia was cowering in the door of her house, ducking behind the door as an enraged Frostwing besieged him. She couldn’t get past the door, but Bismarck was snuffling around it, looking peeved. The young man was shouting at Wiskeria.
“Please, Miss! I’m begging, you, just send a response! Say yes, and I can go! If not—”
“My answer’s no!”
“Please! I can’t go back to her without an affirmative! Do you know what she’ll do to me if I don’t say yes? The last Runners who got on her bad side—”
He yelped as Bismarck nosed closer to the door and pulled it closer towards him. Wiskeria shouted back.
“Is it worse than being eaten by a Mossbear? Tell her no! I’m not going!”
The City Runner wavered. But he didn’t budge. His eyes were so fixed on Bismarck that he didn’t spot Durene. When he did his face went pale.
“Oh, dead gods—”
“Hey! That’s my cottage! Frostwing, stop! Bismarck, get back!”
“Durene? Where are my clothes?”
Wiskeria bellowed from around the cottage. The City Runner peeked around the door.
“Please, Miss! I’m terribly sorry. But I’m a City Runner on delivery! I have to have this [Witch]’s response or—”
Durene vanished around the cottage’s side. A few seconds later, a dripping, scowling, but very clean Wiskeria stomped back around. She yanked the door open.
“I said no. And you can’t get another answer from me. Tell Witch Thallisa that I will not be attending our coven’s meeting. And I’ve already told Mavika the same. If she threatens you, run away.”
“That won’t save me. You know what she’s like, don’t you?”
“Her hexes wear off. And she doesn’t hex people for doing their jobs. Just be polite.”
The young man groaned. Wiskeria was unsympathetic.
“She won’t hex you. Now, get out of Durene’s cottage before she feeds you to her bird. Or her bear.”
The City Runner looked up at Durene. He stared at Bismarck, and at Frostwing, perched on Durene’s shoulder. He gulped. Then got up and ran for it. Frostwing took off and Durene called her back—after she’d dive-bombed the City Runner’s head once.
After he was gone, the two stood alone at Durene’s cottage. Wiskeria adjusted her hat and smoothed her green robes, which didn’t clash that badly. She looked reproachfully at Durene. The half-Troll girl had the grace to look ashamed.
“I didn’t know someone would find you here! What did he want?”
“The same thing as Mavika’s crows. I told you, my fellow [Witches] can’t force me to do anything.”
Durene nodded, but she was still a bit wary. She glanced down the road.
“Is it really alright to say no? That City Runner looked—spooked. Are you sure this… Thallisa won’t do something more serious?”
She was remembering the crow’s head from yesterday. Durene wiped her hand and Wiskeria noticed. She shook her head.
“She’s not Mavika. She threatens and bullies, and that’s about it. He’ll be fine. And I’m clean. Thanks for the clothes. What took you?”
“Lady Rie wants you to be a [General] too. She said…”
Durene relayed the encounter. Wiskeria looked grim, but all she did was adjust her spectacles and tug her hat lower in response to Rie’s assessment of the situation.
“I…understand. And I agree. But I’ll just fan the flames if I return to my job. I’m trying to let people grieve. Not throw my failure into their faces. Maybe I can work with Beniar in private. Maybe. If you’re willing to get him to talk to me—if he’s around the village—I can try helping out a bit. But Durene, I’m a [General]. Level 12. That’s high for how fast I leveled, but I have two good Skills I can use in a battle. I’m no trainer of armies.”
“You’re still the only one good at tactics and other stuff. You helped kill the Goblins. Remember Laken’s poison traps?”
Wiskeria nodded slowly. She sighed.
“That was his idea. But I did make the cauldrons. It’s just—I’ll try, Durene. I’ll try.”
That was better than her attitude yesterday. Durene smiled encouragingly. Wiskeria almost smiled back. Then both girls heard pounding feet on the road behind them. Wiskeria scowled.
“I told you—”
But it wasn’t the City Runner. A young woman perhaps a former Street Runner herself, pounding up the slope to Durene’s cottage. She stopped, panting, and waved at Durene.
“Miss Durene? Lady Rie’s calling for you!”
Durene frowned. So soon?
“What? Why? What’s the emergency?”
“It’s Emperor Laken, Miss Durene! He’s sent a [Message]!”
The girl froze. Wiskeria looked up at her. Both took off running so fast that the Street Runner was caught off-guard. She ducked as Frostwing dove past her. And even Bismarck roused himself. But that was only to pad eighteen steps down the slope, then decide to go back and have a nap.
There were four people who gathered in Mister Prost’s house. Wiskeria, Durene, Lady Rie, and Mister Prost. Wiskeria and Durene were the last to arrive. Durene had run all the way here, but even dashing, they attracted a lot of attention. And the sight of Wiskeria entering the village had provoked even more hard stares than Durene herself.
She hadn’t been lying. But Durene didn’t care. She strode into Prost’s living room, which under Miss Yesel’s influence was already homelier than most of the bare rooms. Prost and Rie were reading something as Nesor trembled in a seat behind her.
“Well? What did he say? Is he coming back?”
“Durene. And Wiskeria. This is a pleasant—”
Rie broke off as Durene strode past her. Nesor leaned back as Durene turned to him and Mister Prost.
“Well? What did he say? Is he still talking?”
The [Lady] cleared her throat softly.
“Nesor is in contact with a [Mage] with Emperor Laken. Someone in a Mage’s Guild, in fact. He’s transcribed the message. If you’d care to—”
The slip of parchment made Durene hesitate.
“I—I can’t read that.”
She flushed. Prost cleared his throat, and Rie blinked.
“Of course. Then—allow me.”
She unfurled the slip and read in a clear voice.
“We have passed the town of Greenforge and are continuing north and west. Progress remains slow. The road is secure and my companions maintain their escorts. We estimate two weeks remaining at most.”
She looked up. Durene and Wiskeria stared at her. Rie sighed.
“The issue is the prisoners. That’s what’s holding them back. The wagons break down, and their captives are not cooperating. Nor is Tyrion giving them any aid now the army has disbanded.”
“That’s it? That’s all he wrote?”
Durene demanded, incredulous. Rie looked down.
“Oh no. He also writes, The situation in Riverfarm is understood. Ask Wiskeria to resume her place if she is willing. I have faith in her. If the situation worsens, I trust in your judgment.”
“I wish he had more advice to give. But then—I suppose even his options are limited. Couldn’t he—no. If he could ride ahead, there would be no point. It’s a miracle that his allies are staying with him so long?”
Durene felt a pain in her chest, a sinking, weighted feeling. She looked around dully, as if the answer would make this confusing, painful message make sense. Prost nodded.
“Lord Yitton Byres and Lord Gralton Radivaek. They’re riding with Emperor Laken. They’re his companions.”
He pronounced the names with some satisfaction, and even Rie smiled. Durene was just blank.
“They’re [Lords]? Are they important?”
“In the grand scheme of things? The Byres family is small, but notable. They have a silver business that has waned and waxed over the years, but Yilton Byres is as honorable and trustworthy as any [Knight]. More so, in fact. I would consider him a perfect ally, although he isn’t powerful per se. But the respect he garners is value enough. As for Lord Gralton…that shocks me.”
Rie tapped a finger to her lips.
“He’s mad. Eccentric? No. Just mad. More dog than man, according to some, but he’s not only powerful in wealth, but a fierce fighter. With his estates backing Laken—”
“They’re important. Fine. But what else does Laken say? Anything? Does he know about…me?”
The word felt almost plaintive as it forced itself out of Durene’s chest. Rie stopped smiling. Prost and Wiskeria turned to her.
“I…he was informed that you were on your feet. Yes. He writes this at the end. Ah…I am relieved Durene is well. Tell her I am coming home as soon as I can. I am sorry I wasn’t there sooner.”
Durene waited. But Lady Rie rolled up the parchment as if that answered that. The girl looked at her, and her heart hurt.
The [Lady] blinked.
“It’s quite a lot. He’s paying for each word, at costly rates for such quick sending. Nesor is of course, free, but Mage’s Guilds cost coin. As for the rest—yes, he doesn’t mention the details, but we have corresponded before. And I think he is being cautious. He may even be using a different location than the one he mentioned out of caution.”
Wiskeria looked up, frowning underneath her hat. Prost nodded. He spread his weathered hands on the table.
“We don’t know if someone’s following Emperor Laken or might set a trap for him. Lady Rie’s worried about Magnolia Reinhart—”
“As we all should be. Laken is firmly against her, as are many peers of the realm. She is already acting. Riverfarm may not feel the immediate effects of her [Trade War], but she is hardly toothless in other areas. And there is still the issue of the saboteur. The one who knocked out my [Mage], Nesor and gave the wrong orders to Wiskeria.”
Rie drummed her painted fingernails on the table. Durene looked from face to face. Prost was nodding, and Wiskeria looked grave.
“So that’s his message? Carry on until he returns?”
“It’s two weeks. I think we can manage that.”
Prost was cautious. Rie nodded.
“If we use that information to reassure people—no, he might be closer than that. Remember, he is speaking in an abundance of caution. If need be, I could see him riding closer to us. And if he gets even closer, Beniar and his riders can of course ride to meet him. We should plan on that, in fact. And in the meantime—”
Durene’s fist smashed down on the table. Nesor jumped out of his seat. Rie stopped. Prost and Wiskeria recoiled. Durene stared down at the splintered wood, and then looked up.
“That’s it. That’s all he said?”
They stared at her. Durene took a shuddering breath.
“After I’ve been asleep for fifty days? After he was gone—gone!—capturing Goblins instead of killing them? When Riverfarm is falling apart and there are [Thieves] and—and—he can’t say anything to me? To me? And he can’t think of a way to save Riverfarm?”
The others were silent. Prost opened his mouth, but Durene glared at him and he didn’t speak.
“He’s always had an idea! He’s always cared about Riverfarm? Who is this? Why isn’t he back? Why isn’t he telling us what to do? Carry on? Wait? You.”
She pointed at Nesor. He turned dead white and recoiled from her finger. Durene shouted at him.
“You—send a [Message] back to him! Tell him what I said! Tell him—tell him we’re not waiting! Tell him he should be back now and damn the goblins! Tell him I’m here! Tell him to talk to me! I want him to say something! We’re in trouble and we need help! What do we do? What do—”
She broke off, her chest heaving. The room was silent as Nesor, eyes wide, put a finger to his head. Durene’s eyes were bright and she was blinking rapidly. Next to Rie, Prost coughed quietly into one hand.
“It’s not…that bad, Durene. The Lancrel folk are agitators, some of them, but it’s not got beyond a few fights between our folk and theirs. No one’s armed among them; Beniar’s Darksky Riders could rout a few hundred in moments.”
“At night they’re practically unstoppable, especially in pitch blackness. I realize I warned you of the risks, but Laken’s aware of the dangers and I’ve told him we can handle it.”
Rie’s quiet voice made Durene blush. But she kept looking at Nesor as he closed his eyes. She knew she was upset. But Laken’s reply had hurt her. It wasn’t just that she was far from him. It wasn’t just that he’d decided to take Goblin prisoners, or that he’d left Frostwing and Bismarck. Or that he wasn’t here when she needed him to tell her it was alright, that losing the battle wasn’t her fault.
It was simply that she wanted to see him again. She missed him. Riverfarm, her world wasn’t the same without him.
And in the silence, as Durene snuffled and tried not to cry, Nesor opened his eyes. He spoke, his voice flat, without intonation, reciting the words one at a time as he caught them tens, perhaps over a hundred miles away.
“I’m sorry, Durene. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. The Goblins are not all evil. I’m afraid. Terribly afraid they’re people. In which case I’m more monster than they are.”
Durene’s eyes opened wide. She opened her mouth, but Rie silenced her.
“He can’t hear you.”
Nesor went on, blindly speaking word after halting word.
“And I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I am coming back. Protect Riverfarm while I’m gone. Please. I know it is dangerous. So watch your back. Wiskeria. I am relying on you. You. And Rie. And Prost.”
The three looked up, old man, [Lady], and [Witch]. Wiskeria looked down and fiddled with the brim of her hat. Prost nodded, straightening his shoulders. Rie just sighed. The voice paused, and went on a final time.
“Perhaps there is a storm coming. I feel the danger. So. Durene. I am sending you the only aid I can. I hope it arrives. You will know it when you see it. I love you. And I will be back soon.”
Nesor closed his mouth. The spellbound gaze faded from his eyes and he blinked rapidly. He looked up and his nervous, warbling voice interjected into the silence.
“It—uh—the connection broke, Lady Rie. I think that was all of it.”
“Thank you, Nesor.”
Lady Rie looked at him with a reassuring smile, and then at Durene. At Prost and Wiskeria. All of them were silent for a bit. Durene wiped at her eyes. And somehow, she felt better. The words had been in Nesor’s voice. And they had come from a long ways away. But she had heard him. He was coming back.
“Help. He said he was sending help? What did he sense? Trouble?”
Rie mused out loud, looking troubled. She turned to Durene and Prost.
“Emperor Laken said you’d know it, Durene. You and only you, it seems. What is it? Do you have any idea?”
Silently, Durene shook her head and shut her eyes.
“I have no clue.”
And she didn’t. Not one thing came to mind. But she knew it would solve everything. It had to. Laken was going to help save Riverfarm. Whatever aid he was sending would come, she was sure. And it would make all the difference.
And if it didn’t? Durene opened her eyes with calm, clear resolution. She would protect Riverfarm. And this time, she wouldn’t fail. She clenched her fists and felt the storm coming. And in the distance, the rains began to fall again.
And not too far north, and a bit to the east. The rains were already falling, already pouring down on the thick roof overhead. The [Message] spell had come in hot and heavy, and the person it was addressed to leaned on the desk, eying the contents of the message. And the reward. The [Receptionist] at the Runner’s Guild in Walta checked the authentication from the [Mage]’s Guild and nodded.
“The seal is backed by House Byres and House Radivaek. You may claim it upon receipt of…Lady Rie Valerund’s personal seal. We may subject you to truth spell as well. Will you take the delivery?”
The young woman with Asian features drummed her fingers on the table. Her black hair blew as the storm’s gusts hurled open an unlatched pair of shutters and blew cold rain and air into the guild. She shivered as the [Receptionist] waited patiently. And she considered the contents of the [Message]. The hidden meaning. Debts. And her own failures and sins.
Ryoka Griffin’s still, silent contemplation was interrupted by the clip-clop of hooves on the wooden floor. A Centauress walked past her and eyed the [Message]. She ignored the [Receptionist]’s scowl as the woman blocked the contents of the message. Charlay, the Centauress City Runner munched on a stalk of celery and spoke with her mouth open while she chewed.
“Ooh. Is that your first personal delivery request? Lucky. Hey, are you going to throw up out of excitement again?”