Inkarr the Traveller was what Gnolls called her. She was, to ask the Longstalker’s Fang Tribe, a sociable, kind Human. Someone who got exasperated by their rolling ‘r’s in her name, a wonderful emissary for her people. Brave, fond of a silly [Guardsman]—and Lehra Ruinstrider’s paramour, among about a hundred others.
She didn’t…act like that since coming to Liscor. Tkrn had wondered if she was sick in their brief, private moments. Only then had Inkar told him she was fine.
“I am just being quiet. Because I am a guest of Liscor and this is new. And because of Erin.”
“Why? She likes you. She even puts up with me—and after what I did with Calruz and Mrsha…”
Tkrn looked guilty, confused, and he didn’t see. Inkar just looked thoughtfully into a hand-mirror as they readied themselves for the last day of travel to Riverfarm.
“She may like me. I like her, a bit. She’s very kind, and she cares for Goblins. And Gnolls. She promised she would give me something to help Eska.”
The [Worldly Traveller] looked up.
“I think she might. She scares me.”
“Who, Erin? She does weird things, and she’s chaotic, and Zevara hates her, but Erin? She’s so nice.”
Inkar looked at Tkrn seriously enough that he stopped eating cold jerky and glanced at her.
“She reminds me of Chieftain Xherw. But backwards. She broke a building by hammering a nail into it. She is friends with the Antinium who nearly conquered Liscor. Now, she is coming to meet an [Emperor] and maybe—maybe ‘set all his Goblins free.’”
Tkrn swallowed hard and wished he’d brought Relc along.
“S-she said that?”
The worst part was that neither one thought it was impossible, or at the very least, impossible for Erin to try. Inkar shook her head.
“Erin Solstice came back from the dead. She scares me.”
“She does like you.”
Tkrn pointed out. Inkar turned to Tkrn and patted him on the head, which became more affectionate as he craned his head left and right so she could scratch it.
“Yes. She does like me. Imagine…imagine a hill speaking one day and saying it liked you.”
Today, no mountains trembled where Erin walked. People did cheer, but Inkar had seen the Meeting of Tribes, so it ‘only’ put Erin on the level of a famous adventurer or figure among Gnolls.
An [Emperor] greeted Erin, and Inkar smiled, touched, as Erin met Griffon Hunt and a little Goblin with a chef’s hat clung to her, sobbing, and the entire event turned into melancholic happiness. No, happiness colored by loss and regret and triumph, greater for it.
Like a beautiful flame, the likes of which Erin could conjure. A different kind of storm, passing over Riverfarm.
Not like the Wind Runner, who came in like a hurricane, building until she left amidst destruction and loss and great deeds.
Erin? She came in already burning, and it only grew hotter from there as more people met the flame. The [Emperor] was first.
Then came the Goblins, the [Witches]. Inkar saw it all and thought she was not wrong to try to get on Erin’s side, but stay away.
“Your Majesty, the Goblins have left the Goblinlands!”
Inkar’s head turned, and she saw Numbtongue straighten, eyes widening. Ulvama just counted, and Gothica spun around with a look of delight and relief.
For there came Goblins. Across Riverfarm’s tamed grounds, marching out of the wide forest and the mountain in the backdrop, past the double-layered walls, one slightly higher than the other.
Green folk. Some short like children, racing next to tall Hobs, round or lithe. But what struck Inkar was how they looked.
Goblins had always been described to her by Eska and Deskie as monstrous savages at worst, barely clothed and cannibalistic, to opportunistic raiders at best, predatory and cunning but uncivilized.
These Goblins put a hole in that idea, if Erin and the others had not already. Like Numbtongue, like Gothica—Ulvama played into the stereotype with how she talked and dressed—they looked like people.
They wore clothing, most of it simply spun cotton or wool, but Inkar realized, thanks to her acquaintanceship with Honored Deskie, that it came from the same [Weavers] as Riverfarm’s folk.
The colors and make were exactly the same. Some of the Goblins had forgone the Unseen Empire’s motif or added curious red stripes or other symbols of the tribes they had been part of, but a few looked identically clothed to the Humans.
More than that—they had a different air to them than even Numbtongue. Numbtongue was polite, well-spoken—but as cautious as Inkar was to Erin. He behaved like he expected someone to produce a mob out for his blood at any moment. Ditto for Ulvama.
But these Goblins strolled along, some scratching at their bellies or pointing. Many had weapons, but that was personality, rather than their fear of Riverfarm’s people.
And indeed, the Humans were drawing back, but not fleeing for weapons. Many glared, but Inkar noticed how many looked resigned or watched the [Emperor]. If the Goblins were disliked, it was as a bad neighbor was, rather than monsters.
Fascinating. How much did Erin realize? She turned, her eyes wide, and made a choking sound. Then she began to walk forwards as Pebblesnatch clung to her like an anchor, still sobbing.
In response, the Goblins pointed at her. Some waved. Others looked…well, they just observed Erin, much like Inkar. A few waved at Gothica or recognized Numbtongue and roared in delight.
Leafarmor and Raidpear raced along the ground ahead of the others as Numbtongue’s eyes widened. They met in an explosion, tackling each other, slamming hands on each other’s backs, chatting in their language of gestures and oddly fluid sounds to Inkar’s ear. She wondered what language it might be like—it wasn’t like Kazakh or Russian in many ways, the only two she knew besides English.
Ulvama got the least amount of reception. Some of the Goblins peered at her and shrugged. Oh, she’s back again.
But they had one thing that made Inkar do a double-take. She saw a Goblin raise a rectangular device in its hands, and a flash made Erin pause, mid-run. A Goblin held up the smartphone, cackled, and showed the others.
“Video, video, stupid. Me hugging her!”
One scolded the other, and the Goblin sighed and held the phone up in landscape-mode like a proper person did. Erin pointed at it.
Then a Goblin snuck up behind her and gave Erin a huge hug, beaming for the camera. The other Goblins clustered around, patting at Erin’s head, prying off Pebblesnatch, and pointing out Mrsha.
Hey, I knew that Gnoll! The Cave Goblins were especially nostalgic. And once they realized Gothica was one of them, they surrounded her, trying to take her parasol, asking questions—and getting kicks until they backed up to let the [Goth] assert her isolated rebelliousness.
For once, Erin was overwhelmed. She kept having Goblins pat her on the head or pose, grinning, and she was lost for words.
“That is a smartphone! How the—you’re alive! You’re walking about? No one’s beating you with sticks?”
“No sticks. Unless for fun? Ulvama back. Probably more of that.”
One Goblin assured Erin in cheerful, if slightly stilted, English. Erin pointed at Riverfarm. Griffon Hunt.
Halrac was still overwhelmed, but Revi was pushing back Goblins trying to pat her head with a growl, and Briganda had backed up. Yet…Riverfarm’s people mostly watched. One, a huge man with a [Blacksmith]’s apron, called out to one of the Goblins.
“Hey, you lot got any of that iron ore? We could use more…”
“Yeah, yeah. Later. I’m busy.”
A Hob snapped back. It was such a strange reaction as he posed with Erin for the next camera shot that Erin was lost for words.
Here was something that not even Liscor had. And then she turned her head and saw a blind man smiling as he leaned on a scowling half-Troll girl’s arm. Erin stared at him and thought the smile looked slightly smug.
Then—Erin’s head turned as the last group made themselves known. The final power of Riverfarm came strutting across the ground, heads held high. Like a group headed to a ball, they strode past the Humans, who moved aside respectfully. They approached Erin, haughtily sizing her up. The Sariant Lambs plodded towards Erin—until a boot nearly kicked one into a building.
“Oops, sorry about that.”
The lambs scattered, and people booed and made sounds of outrage, but Hedag strode forwards, aiming another kick at a lamb who fled, mewling. Erin looked up, and here came [Witches].
Agratha, Oliyaya, Hedag, Eloise, apprentices and adults. Even Alevica, side-by-side. They parted the streets like the Sariant Lambs, but the hats…
Hats of every color! Friendly and stern, some black as midnight, others brown, one even as red as an apple. [Witches] all.
Erin’s eyes grew wider, because she had noticed the [Witches], of course, but she had never seen any. Not since coming back from the dead. And here they were. Her eyes searched the crowd for a girl—but there were many girls, and none looked like…like…
A flapping sound in the air broke the slow advance of the [Witches]. A gigantic crow landed on a rooftop, perching, staring down at Erin—and then it was a woman. Mavika peered down at Erin, and she gasped in recognition. Lightly, the Crow Witch leapt to the ground, and she joined the line of hatted women.
They stopped, as Goblins turned, and regarded Erin. She felt dozens of keen eyes on hers. Dozens of…what?
It wasn’t like Laken, who was still a presence that defined this land, an aura like a vast eye watching her, although not as unfriendly as Sauron, but there. The [Witches] were more like…ideas.
Not even ideas, scenes. Erin could look at them, and it was like a movie began playing in her head, but replete with sound and smell. One look at the short woman with the pressed tea leaves and flowers sewn into her hat and the gentle, if inquisitive smile, and Erin felt like sitting outside and having a cup of tea and talking the older [Witch]’s ear off. Sniffing the tea, tasting it with the tip of her tongue until it wasn’t too hot and the gentle taste of sour green tea filled her mouth, sip by sip…
By contrast, the woman who had an axe on her shoulder and a build to match the [Blacksmith] put Erin in mind of striding through the forest on grim business. Going to…fell a tree? Not quite right. Something about that smile made Erin fear the axe’s downswing, yet it was necessary, like a [Woodcutter] removing trees plagued by blight.
The [Witch] with the cardigan sweater? Erin felt like she’d be in class, dozing a bit, and sitting up and answering a question, and you had to raise your hand or you’d get a scolding, but she was the kind of [Teacher] who wanted to be cool and was thus uncool—but she had candies on her desk that she passed out after class.
All of this passed in a moment for Erin, like a wonderful banquet where the smells alone drew you into a seat. But she could have savored it far longer, seen far more…
Yet what did they see of her? The [Witches] looked at the [Innkeeper]. And they saw a woman with no hat.
A woman, no longer a girl. To the woman who was as much crow as person in Erin’s eyes, Mavika, Erin still smelled of the battlefields. Blood and death clung to her, but she also was the scent of baking, ashwheat, rich and warm on the breeze. Tears baked into the dough.
To Alevica, Erin seemed like many of the clients she’d met; not the ones who shouted loud, but the ones for whom the Witch Runner did actual, quality deliveries. Power unseen, just out of sight, that didn’t need to brag…but only halfway. The other half was like Charlay, a loud, brash donkey who kicked up a fuss, the loudest person in the room.
However, what all of them saw was fire. It was so closely part of the young [Witch] that it defined her. A great passion, burning a myriad of colors, each one glorious and wonderful.
But mostly, she had no hat. So all these potentialities were strong in her, but untamed. Unfocused, like a gem that could be a prism, refracting light, but only showed strong, fuzzy colors.
The [Witches] and Erin were silent for a long moment. Even the Goblins watched, and Mrsha sneezed and coughed as she stared at the strange women, and Pebblesnatch looked around for Garry. Then, as one—the [Witches] did the quintessential greeting between their kind.
As one, young and old, dozens, possibly as many as seventy in this street alone—
They tipped their hats. Erin hesitated, looked from face to face, and started.
Her hand rose, but she had no hat, even an invisible one, so she waved weakly, a little waggle of the hand.
She paused, glanced at her hand, and made a face.
“Okay, I get it. That’s why you have a hat.”
Giggling. Some of the apprentices covered their mouths, and Erin’s head snapped up. She saw the Tea Witch cover her mouth politely, but the woman with the axe threw her head back and laughed almost as loudly as Briganda. And then—the Crow Witch glanced around, irritated, and spoke into the second hush she caused.
“Witch of Liscor. Witch of the Wandering Inn. Innkeeper Witch. Witch Erin Solstice. We have been expecting you.”
“You h—I mean, greetings. Witch…?”
Mavika’s eyes fixed Erin with a disapproving look. She tilted her head unnaturally to one side.
“…Mavika. With me stand the [Witches] of the Unseen Empire, though we are no coven formal. A great pact has been forged across this land, and we gather. All save the Stitch Witch are offered sanctuary here. Yet the crows know your name. The wind whispers it. An [Emperor] welcomes you, as do we. Will you speak with us, Witch of Liscor?”
She was so formal. There was a ritual to this, and Erin felt it, she had been taught it. Yet she hesitated. She tried to smile.
“Me? I mean, sure. I was hoping to find a Nanette. I…I sent word. I have something to tell her. But I’d like to speak to all of you! Hello!”
Again, Erin smiled, but this time, it didn’t go over as well. There was no chuckle. There were some smiles, but Mavika was staring a hole into Erin’s face.
“You speak with none of the old ways, Witch Solstice. Though I feel them in my bones. I smell the grave on you, yet you speak like a child to our craft.”
Erin bit her tongue. She felt like Somillune or one of the other [Witches] was upbraiding her. Erin hesitated and spoke more carefully.
“I have been taught some of the old ways, Witch Mavika. But I am no [Witch] of years. I don’t even—I do not even have a hat. If I am informal, I apologize. But I have come here as a friend to all, and a friend to all I hope to be! I have come upon Witch Califor’s will to meet Nanette, and I have more to speak of—”
Califor’s name provoked a response within the coven, who turned their heads and murmured, but the sound was doused as the older [Witches] turned their heads. Erin went on, speaking into the silence.
“—But I am an [Innkeeper] too. A guest of Riverfarm and Emperor Godart, and I would like to be a friend. So I am sorry, and I hope to get to know you. After all—a [Witch] is a [Witch]!”
Erin beamed and winked at Mavika. The Crow Witch’s face never changed, but her beady eyes lingered on Erin’s face.
“Yes. Some are ruder than others. Some less a [Witch]. But you breathe like the oldest thunder still rolling from ages past. You smell of corpseblood of kingdoms, and I hear the horn in your voice like the greatest war. So I take my hat off to you and will listen to your words.”
With that, she removed her hat, revealing strands of grey hair, and bowed her head ever-so-slightly. Then she put it on her head. Erin saw Mavika turn away. The [Innkeeper] saw the other [Witches] break up and turned around. Goblins, [Emperor], her friends, and Riverfarm’s folk saw Erin smile uncertainly.
“Um…did I make her mad?”
And that was how Erin Solstice came to Riverfarm. But the two [Witches] who mattered most to her, in some ways—she had yet to meet.
Once again, Laken Godart approached, and the introductions began again, explanations and unpacking and more. But Erin, perplexed by the [Witches], slightly off-put by Mavika, still waiting to meet Nanette, and anxious and relieved by the Goblins, rubbed at her ears. It was faint, but still—she supposed it was a trick of her mind.
Because no one else had mentioned, behind the greetings and speeches, the talk and silence, the faint sound of someone…crying.
Wiskeria knew the old ways. She had been taught by the greatest [Witch] living. Erin had been taught by the greatest coven in existence.
Yet neither had been the perfect student. Erin had not been a [Witch]. And Wiskeria…
Wiskeria had been a girl. How did you teach either the old craft, the deepest ways?
The answer was that you didn’t. Nevertheless, when Wiskeria saw Nanette and her hat full of sadness, which threatened to crush her, she offered the younger [Witch] her knowledge.
“I could…teach you how to sacrifice it.”
Nanette dreamily clung to Wiskeria’s hand. She had not met the [Innkeeper], but she was going to. Erin had asked to meet with her, and so Wiskeria was taking her into Laken’s throne room. It was the first time they would meet her up close.
Wiskeria said it like it was obvious. Nanette looked up at Wiskeria’s bespectacled face as the [Witch] nodded to people, smiled and greeted them. Wiskeria. Belavierr’s daughter. The ordinary [Witch].
“What would happen?”
The younger [Witch] was curious. She knew her answer, but Wiskeria replied absently.
“You’d never feel sad again. Possibly only about your mother, but generally too. I don’t recommend it, necessarily, but the option is there. You might get something good for it. It’s just an option; stop me if you don’t want to.”
There it was. Like offering to cut Nanette’s hair. The girl pondered what kind of person she might be without sadness. Much less for her mother. It sounded like a joke.
But imagine it. Someone who was never sad. That was a frightening thing. Yet more than that, Nanette was curious, so she tilted her head up to stare at Wiskeria. Her hat hurt her head. To be rid of it…would be nice. But not like that.
“Could you really do that? Do you know how to sacrifice sadness, Wiskeria?”
“Mm. Yes. Sort of. Enough to get us started. I don’t know how to do a lot of the deep craft. It’s more like…my mother taught me the first steps. That’s the tricky bit, she claims. Anyone can keep walking, but finding the path? I have all the options, but I’d learn the rest.”
“I see. Califor never taught me that.”
Wiskeria nodded amiably.
“She was one of the great teachers, though. I don’t think she was wrong to hold it back from you. My mother was a poor teacher. A poor mother. I think even she’d admit that. She did her best, though. But she made a lot of mistakes.”
The [Witch of Law] smiled brightly, like a white lie. A pleasant nothing on her face, disguising whatever she might feel. That was the thing—Nanette couldn’t read Wiskeria. A [Witch] could pull emotion out of a moment or person, even if it wasn’t their craft. Even Nanette could do that. She had sensed Ryoka’s sadness and guilt, just like her relief.
Yet Wiskeria was blank. Only rarely did some emotions seep through. Mavika, Eloise, Hedag, they were all guarded, but it was the difference between something being there but out of sight, behind an opaque glass wall.
Versus not being there at all. Still, Wiskeria had feelings. She had a past. So—the trick was this. Wiskeria tilted her hat up as she took Nanette through Riverfarm. And she said it all, plain as you like, for Nanette to hear.
“How was Belavierr a bad mother? I suppose…she spoiled me.”
Spoiled? The older Wiskeria had come to that conclusion long after being a girl. When she dreamed, it was almost always lucid dreaming.
She couldn’t help it. She slipped into consciousness and interacted with her dream, rather than being a passenger on the ride. Wiskeria always knew she was dreaming, so she was unfortunately never truly surprised.
It had some benefits, but like much of her life, it was a consequence of having been Belavierr’s daughter.
It was a famous story. An unprecedented thing. To hear Belavierr tell it, the moment was chance. She had found Wiskeria, a victim of some accident, dying alone. And unlike any other babe the Stitch Witch had sacrificed or abandoned, bartered or ignored…she had scooped Wiskeria up and made her a daughter.
The first in an immortal lifespan.
Why? The girl had wondered if it were fate, but Belavierr had always denied it, and she rarely lied outright. It was just…a decision.
Perhaps it was Belavierr sensing a need to change herself. But whatever the case, she had still been the immortal Witch of Webs. Then—Ser Raim had not yet burned her layers of immortality away. She had been more secure, more entrenched in her power than most points in her life.
So when the older Wiskeria looked at a dream of herself, she could see a girl with blue hair hurrying to keep up with a striding woman who had never truly changed. Only—the Belavierr of her childhood had a blank face. Even compared to the one of now, she was—distant. Sometimes, she forgot to speak or breathe, but whenever the girl spoke, Belavierr would stop and listen.
That was the first way in which Wiskeria was spoiled. Never, ever, had Wiskeria met someone else like Belavierr. Even the most loving parents had moments when a child’s questions became nattering or when a good friend lost focus of a conversation.
But Belavierr? Every time Wiskeria spoke, the Stitch Witch focused utterly and absolutely on her daughter.
“Mother, I am hungry. I have not eaten in a day.”
The little Wiskeria didn’t look thin, but she certainly did not have the fed look of some children in Terandria. She walked with experience, even six years old, and she seemed older, used to doing things.
Not that her mother hadn’t fed her or taken care of her with great fastidiousness. It was just that when she realized Wiskeria could feed herself or ask for food, she had abandoned the notion entirely.
Look at her. The older Wiskeria observed how, even as a child, she’d realized how off her mother was and how she needed to speak differently. Belavierr tilted her head left and right, then replied slowly.
“Eating is good for a child. You should eat more, Wiskeria. Why did you not ask?”
A flat question for a flat face, but not uncaring. Young-Wiskeria shrugged.
“I had snacks. May I have something to eat, Mother?”
“Yes, of course. What do you desire?”
And there it was. The older Wiskeria saw the young one’s face light up, and she closed her eyes, for this was bad parenting. She remembered it clearly—the young Wiskeria beamed with delight.
“I dreamed of eating a great fish from the sea, Mother! The [Sailors] said there are fearsome sharks as big as boats! May I have a fish like that?”
Now—to anyone else, that question would have resulted in a different answer. A kindly way to say no, or a version of that request. A fish with teeth, or a bit of one, or maybe a clever bit of cooking to put husks of cornmeal in a fish’s mouth, or cut up a bit of meat or…
But the child knew she could ask, and worse—the mother straightened at once.
“A fish with teeth as large as a ship? Do you care which it is?”
“No…but may I see you catch it?”
The Stitch Witch nodded. So, she let Wiskeria hold her hand as the child and mother walked differently and sped up, crossing the land like a blur, like a stroll. Until they reached the sea. Then her mother produced a fishhook as large as an anchor and tied it to a piece of hair that had come from a unicorn.
A fishing hamlet watched in silence and terror as the Stitch Witch took a tiny hook out and let Wiskeria whirl the little hook and toss it into the sea. The girl tried three times before she got it into the water.
Only on the third time did the great anchor-hook fly into the distance and sink in a tremendous splash. Belavierr whispered as Wiskeria hummed and laughed and waved at the village. Then—something began tugging, and the young Wiskeria pulled, and the water began to writhe and tear as something tremendous thrashed in the distance.
“Hold on tight, my daughter.”
The child wrestled with the little line as Belavierr carefully pointed at the great beast coming closer. Then a needle like a harpoon speared down, and five more—and Wiskeria was laughing and clapping her hands as the bloody side of a whale shark rose from the waters.
The older Wiskeria watched all this sadly. She had been a sailor on a ship when she left home and her mother. She had crewed vessels, eaten the day’s catch and the fine work of a [Cook] most nights.
She had never quite enjoyed it as when she had been a girl upon a beach, eating a whale’s heart as it still tried to beat. Belavierr had made some classic parenting mistakes.
A child should not have everything. If she ever had another child, she probably wouldn’t have made the same error.
But what a thought. Belavierr with a second child? She had never been…evil. No, she had been evil, but she had taught her daughter without lies.
One day, as Wiskeria was playing with an artifact Belavierr had bought which let Wiskeria hover and fly about, the Stitch Witch was watching her.
The girl was getting older now: she was eight. Eight…and Belavierr had begun teaching her the old ways. Bits and pieces, although the girl had no craft yet. She was already an [Apprentice Witch], but no full [Witch]. Not yet.
“Wiskeria. Come here.”
Wiskeria stopped floating about and landed. It was rare Belavierr told her to do anything, so Wiskeria stood with hands folded.
Belavierr’s ringed eyes blinked slowly, and she regarded Wiskeria, touching her head, feeling at her cheeks, making sure she was well with a spell to check her health.
“Wiskeria. Are you happy?”
“Yes, Mother. I’m very happy right now.”
Belavierr nodded slowly. She gazed at Wiskeria and then spoke.
“Good. Then hold still, Wiskeria. I am going to slap you.”
The little girl’s face wrinkled with puzzlement. She opened her mouth and then held still, curious.
She did not expect the slap to be hard. Or if she did…Wiskeria opened her eyes and stared at the sky. She felt at her cheek and found it was swelling so fast that it puffed up under her fingers. She realized her mouth was bloody, but it didn’t hurt. Not yet.
When she got up, Belavierr was sitting there. The same face. She just watched Wiskeria as the girl began to feel the pain. Wiskeria gulped for air, and her eyes glistened, but she made no sound until Belavierr spoke.
“If you wish to cry, cry. Tears befit anyone when they are needed. I have a potion to heal your wounds, and I will give it to you after you learn the lesson.”
“I won’t cry, Mother. What lesson was that? There was no reason in it. No…”
Wiskeria held her cheek. The old ways had many horrible things, but they were all for a reason. That? Belavierr spoke calmly.
“That was no lesson in witchcraft, my daughter. I slapped you for a simple reason: you will never fully trust me again. I have betrayed every pact. Broken oaths sworn in blood. I have known mothers who devour their daughters for life, for power, for jealousy and greed. If I one day change, you must be able to slay me.”
“H-how could I slay you, Mother?”
The girl whispered, looking up at an omen as tall as a mountain. Layers of immortality. She was beginning to see, and a hundred mouths whispered back to her, safe from time and mortal blades.
“That, I must teach you. Enough to give you even a chance. Or what sort of a mother would I be?”
By the time the girl met the boy, she was twelve. Not that she met him on her birthday or any auspicious hour. She was doing perfect cartwheels along the side of a mountain when he swooped down on a young Griffin.
He was the boy who would be called the Griffin Prince of Kaliv, in time, and thirteen. Kaliv let their [Prince] fly with only a speaking stone because the Royal Griffin he had been raised with was better than any dog or bodyguard. As long as he stayed in sight of their capital city, he was allowed to roam.
So, the sight of a young girl, alone, doing cartwheels where monsters could appear had him curious. Even a feral Griffin could kill someone, and she was no Kaliv citizen.
“Health above, so below! What are you doing, Miss? It’s not safe out here.”
The young Griffin Prince swooped down, keeping his voice low in case of avalanches. The girl looked up.
“Oh, health below and so above to you too. Hello, there. I’m cartwheeling and waiting for my mother to come back. I’m fine, thanks. Nothing will harm me.”
She was so confident that the [Prince] was taken aback. He was young, and she had the look already of someone who had a secret on the tip of her tongue. A too-old look of someone who had seen her mother bring down the moon and had listened to all the whispers of the ages.
At that time, Wiskeria was not old, and she still did not know her mother entirely. So she was arrogant. And it came off wrong on a [Prince] of Kaliv, so the boy spoke up, putting a hand on his sword.
“Even I’m not safe here. Even a full [Griffin Rider] would be wary, Miss. Let me take you home. My mother, the [Queen], can find your mother.”
The girl did another cartwheel, and only now did the [Prince] realize—she had a pointed hat on her head, blue as could be, but it never moved. There was no strap, but even when she rotated in a cartwheel and it brushed the ground, it never came off her head.
“Mm. No. I don’t think so. No one can find my mother. And nothing can harm me. My mother sewed a good-luck charm into this amulet, see?”
She showed him a cloth bag, and the Griffin Prince didn’t recognize it as an amulet. He grew angrier and spoke.
“I bet I could do you harm if I wanted to. Or Coalwing, here.”
He indicated his Griffin, and the young Coalwing cawed uneasily, a warning the Griffin Prince didn’t heed. Wiskeria’s head rose, and she looked at the boy.
“No, you couldn’t. At least, you couldn’t kill me.”
“I bet I could.”
“You couldn’t. Would you like me to prove it to you?”
“If you like.”
The entire conversation was getting away from the young [Prince]. It felt silly and childish like an argument with someone else, but also…he didn’t realize she was serious until Wiskeria was striding towards him. Then he put up his hands jokingly.
“I don’t want to punch you.”
“Okay. Then draw your sword. But I have your eye.”
The boy sat down, and Coalwing shrieked. Only after he felt the searing pain and began to scream and clawed at his sword did he realize she had poked out his eye.
He was afraid to cut her, despite that, but she drew a knife, and he realized his sword kept turning. Even his Griffin was screaming as she drew a wand and set fire to his feathers. He cut Wiskeria twice, and she cried out as blood ran down, but she kept fighting.
“Do you admit it? Do you admit it?”
He didn’t understand what she wanted him to admit. She was getting exasperated, and his eye was gone, and he was bleeding from two stabs. Wiskeria seized his head.
“Don’t make me kill you! Admit you can’t kill me!”
She stared into one eye running with tears, the other with blood, and looked confused.
“Why are you so sad? It’s not even that I’ve hurt you. You’re…sad. Don’t be.”
She dropped her knife and fished out a handkerchief. The boy was dying of blood loss, but she pulled out a potion and healed him. Then she sat, asking him why he was crying and why he wouldn’t just admit the obvious.
“My eye. My eye!”
He screamed at her, and she looked more and more puzzled until her mother appeared. She came striding up the mountain, up a cliff face, and the boy froze when he saw that ringed stare, that hat.
“Wiskeria. What are you doing with a [Prince]? You’ve taken his eye. Did he attack you? If so, he dies.”
She drew a sewing needle, and his heart stopped, but Wiskeria leapt up.
“No, Mother! I poked out his eye because we argued, but he’s crying and he’s sad.”
“People are sad when they lose their eyes, my daughter. Hm. This will not do. He is the son of a [Queen]. It should not be as much a fuss if he vanishes. Or I can remove you from his mind.”
Wiskeria looked back at the terrified boy and scuffed a foot on the ground.
“Don’t do that. I like him. Can you heal him, Mother?”
Belavierr tilted her head.
“As you wish, my daughter.”
So, she took the terrified [Prince] and found where his eye had run onto the ground and made him scoop up the dirt and press it into the bloody socket. Then, when the dirt fell away and he blinked with two eyes, she stitched up his torn clothing and listened as he exclaimed and talked with Wiskeria.
The young girl was powerfully interested in this crying boy and begged her mother to let him introduce her to his mother. So—Belavierr walked higher, and she walked into Kaliv’s courts and met Novakya, the Griffin Queen, and introduced herself and her daughter.
To say they caused a stir was an understatement. Every great warrior stormed into the court as the Griffin Queen swept her son behind her, but Belavierr tipped her hat and—because her daughter had no friends and liked the young [Prince]—offered the Griffin Queen a deal.
Thereafter, the Stitch Witch would visit, sometimes every day, sometimes once every few months, and bring her daughter to meet the [Prince]. Upon request, she would sew—for a discounted price—what was asked of her.
Some armor for a warrior. Sew an arm back onto a body. Sew a little charm into a tunic. And Wiskeria and the [Prince] would play, and she would slowly—slowly—realize why he had cried when she took out his eye. He, in turn, would speak with the Stitch Witch and her daughter and develop a friendship, or infatuation, that only grew the older they got.
When he was fifteen, she was fourteen, and two years had passed, Wiskeria was more like a person. But still, she loved her mother and sometimes asked the [Prince] if he wanted anything.
“Anything? Your mother makes my mother worried, Wiskeria.”
“I know. And sometimes she says we might become enemies or she might eat me. But she hasn’t, and she gives me what I ask for. I have asked for Wyvern meat, to fly and touch clouds. I almost asked to pet a Unicorn, but she does too much, you know. But you’re the Griffin Prince. Isn’t Ailendamus worrying to your mother?”
He nodded, thinking back to the meetings he sometimes eavesdropped on or the [Advisors] and [Strategists] would tell him about, or his mother and his siblings.
“It is. I have to learn a lot. I hope…your mother will stay friends with Kaliv, even if some people call her a monster.”
Wiskeria smiled brightly.
“So long as I’m here, she will! But don’t you want something else? She’s so miserly, but if I ask her, she’ll do something for free.”
“But the cost…”
Wiskeria waved that away eagerly. She had never convinced the [Prince] of this much before.
“She’ll pay it for me because of love and complain about the cost of being a mother. Or I’ll help you pay it! What do you want? A sword? She’s no good with swords, but she can sew almost anything.”
So the young man thought and thought and then had a brilliant idea as he read stories of old. He was shy, but Wiskeria got it out of him, and nearly a month later, she bade her mother listen to his request. For Kaliv, for the future, the [Prince] asked if the Stitch Witch could make him a warrior who would never die.
What happened then, as Belavierr’s daughter watched and realized what it was to see a friend in pain, when she looked at her mother’s blank face and saw her, in the days after, when Kaliv expelled the Stitch Witch and the disgraced [Prince] lost his name and future—all of that came from a simple tragedy.
The Griffin Prince asked if the Stitch Witch could make him into a warrior who would not die. The horror, the tragedy of it was—she did.
Wiskeria’s past, her guilts, the failures of youth, of growing up and her mistakes that had driven her away from her mother until now, were old stories.
She had told Nanette some of them, but possibly only the Griffin Prince and Wiskeria knew them all. Even Mavika did not know Wiskeria’s childhood.
Yet, when Wiskeria met the Witch of Liscor, the [Innkeeper], Erin Solstice, they came back to her. A bland, normal [Witch] fiddled with her glasses as Erin Solstice turned with a white Gnoll who touched luck in her arms. With a [Princess] by her side, a Hobgoblin possessed by ghosts, a traveller with a dress woven by someone who knew thread in this day and age, and so many more.
Wiskeria looked at Erin Solstice and felt nostalgia as Nanette stopped and felt her hat shake slightly. But Wiskeria, ignored by Erin, and even most of the room, looked at the [Witch] with no hat. She nodded to herself. She was right.
She did not like Erin at all.
Before they entered, the voices coming from within were audible through a window opened for ventilation. Laken’s ‘throne room’ was, after all, a converted storage warehouse, and plans were being made for a far grander installation.
However, there were benefits to being able to listen in on conversations within, and Laken had done that more than once. This might have been coincidental, but even so—the two [Witches] listened to the young woman’s voice from within.
“…I owe you so much, and Ryoka does too. But you were part of the army that attacked Liscor. Goblins died there. I was there.”
“I know. So was I. It was not my choice, nor did I know what Tyrion Veltras had planned. That is not an excuse. Had I known he intended to siege a Drake city, I would have refused to go with him. But I will tell you this, Erin. The Goblin Chieftain, Tremborag, raided Riverfarm and destroyed many villages like Windrest. They murdered my people. I would not have stood in Tyrion’s way when he destroyed the mountain of Goblins or when he saved my people when they fought your Chieftain, Rags.”
“She’s not my—Goblins are people!”
“Yes. And some of them are terrible. Some of them are not. That is the lesson I learned—later. Which is why the Goblinlands exist. I am guilty of my mistakes, Erin. But I did make them with the best of intentions.”
Silence, then. Nanette fidgeted, one of her rare movements, and she adjusted her hat. She was staring at the walls as if looking for something. The acrimonious discussion was petering out, and the [Emperor] seemed tired. It was not the first time he had argued this, and he had done it both ways, apologizing to the Wind Runner, defending the Goblins to others.
But the [Innkeeper] continued, and there was a tone in her voice unlike how she had met the [Witches] of Riverfarm. She didn’t raise her voice or speak faster, but it slid into the conversation like a pair of brass knuckles being gripped in a pocket.
“—Then. If the Goblins want to go, will you let them?”
The [Emperor] paused a moment.
“…They are my subjects. A Goblin can walk around Riverfarm without being murdered in cold blood. I don’t believe Liscor is that safe.”
“There are other places for Goblins. If they want to leave—Ulvama told me they might not be able to. If they want to leave with me, when I go…”
“You’ll take them, it sounds like. Are you telling me what you intend or asking?”
“I’m just asking.”
A low chuckle, but not a pleased one. Wiskeria tilted her head and whispered to Nanette.
It was rare for Laken to lose his patience after months of doing this. But there was definitely a hostile note in his voice, and just as clearly, he was holding onto his temper. The [Emperor] snapped back.
“You ask like a proper [Witch], at least, Erin. No, nevermind. That’s unkind, and I apologize. But if you won’t discuss anything that matters, ghosts, your quests? We’ll have dinner, later. Perhaps then. I understand Nanette and Wiskeria are waiting outside. I shall tour Riverfarm. Do let me know what you decide.”
Shuffling, then the [Emperor] came striding out the door with Prost and Rie behind him. No one looked happy, but Laken caught himself, turned to Wiskeria and Nanette, and smiled apologetically.
“Did you hear that?”
“I’m sorry I was absent, Your Majesty.”
Wiskeria tipped her hat, and Laken waved that off.
“I leave this as a matter of [Witches]. I am—a bit piqued at the moment. It’s affecting my mood. Just know that I will support your decisions, regardless, Nanette.”
“Thank you, Emperor Laken.”
The girl murmured without looking up. Laken smiled at her and turned his head back.
“—I hold Erin Solstice in the utmost of respect. The woman herself is somewhat difficult. No wonder Magnolia Reinhart herself had trouble.”
Then he was gone. Wiskeria adjusted her hat again, but she only waited a bit as Nanette stood there.
“Are you alright, Nanette?”
A fair answer, so Wiskeria took her hand again, pushed the door open, and there stood Erin Solstice.
She was not alone, but when she saw Nanette, the rest of the world stopped existing for the two of them. She fixed her eyes on Nanette’s face, and the girl looked up and felt her hat trembling. Wiskeria was ignored, so she stood there, taking in the [Princess], the Hobgoblin, the [Knights], and the uneasy feeling on the back of her neck.
Wiskeria looked right, left, up, and then around, but she never saw Tessa. Yet she calmly put her back to the wall as Erin began to speak.
“You. You’re Nanette, aren’t you? I’m Erin. Erin Solstice, an [Innkeeper] from Liscor. I—I’m a [Witch] as well, a new one.”
She stumbled over her words slightly, and the tone that had rung throughout her voice when speaking to the [Emperor] was gone. She should have kept it, but the speech the [Innkeeper] had rehearsed had fled her mind. Wiskeria thought she saw it go, like vapor leaving the light brown hair, the uncertain, earnest face.
Erin licked her lips nervously and fidgeted as Nanette took her time responding. She looked nothing like the aura she had or the feeling in the air. Just a plain [Innkeeper] who would fit an apron, maybe making eggs in a frying pan or chatting with her guests.
Until those hazel eyes shone, until she stood in the center of an event like a stone with the waters rushing around her, influencing it all. Wiskeria did not like Erin. But she listened for the same reason Nanette looked up and made her dry throat, unused to speech, work.
“I’m Nanette. You have no hat.”
Erin put a hand to her head and tried to chuckle.
“I…haven’t found one I like yet. Sorry. I know it’s a witchy thing to do. But I’m new. I was just taught, when I was dead. I had—the greatest of teachers.”
“You were dead?”
Erin waved it off with one hand. Her eyes never left Nanette’s face.
“Someone shot me with crossbows. I got better. It’s a long story, but—Nanette. Nanette Weishart, I don’t know quite how to say this. Please, believe me. I was dead for a while, and I walked the lands of the dead. I had an adventure. A terrible, grand…sad adventure.”
Erin’s eyes became distant, and some of the people behind her shivered or looked at her, half-believing. But the [Witches] just stared at Erin in wonder.
Not even Belavierr walked with ghosts in this era. Yet Nanette’s hand had suddenly tightened on the brim of her hat. Erin breathed the next words.
“I only survived because I had a guide. I met a great [Witch] who saved my life—my soul—and taught me many things. She convened the last, greatest coven of dead [Witches]. And she made me promise that if I lived, I would find her daughter. Her name was Califor, and I have come to Riverfarm to make good on my promise. She asked me to find you, Nanette. And—and if you wanted, make sure you grew up safely, grew up as well as I could. I know this is a lot to take in—”
Erin was speaking faster and faster, like someone who was spinning the most incredible of tales and trying to reach the end before it all fell apart, a fantasy. And she was trying very hard not to tear up.
Yet Nanette just listened, listened and fixed her eyes on Erin. Not in disbelief, nor outrage. Nor even much sadness.
Her hat was too full. Wiskeria watched Nanette as carefully as Erin. The girl who had walked among the dead still smelled of the grave. There were flashes of light around her, like Dragonfire, and if Wiskeria listened hard, she thought she could hear someone blowing a horn.
She was so much like Belavierr that Wiskeria felt an itching in her back. Like Belavierr…but there was no grandness at times. She had no hat, no formality.
If it had been Belavierr, she would have walked into Riverfarm with a storm at her back. She would have walked straight to Nanette, ignoring the [Emperor], and spoken her promise before all and only one.
Wiskeria wondered which would have been more appropriate here. Neither, most likely. For Nanette listened to Erin until the [Innkeeper] trailed off, waiting anxiously for the girl to say something. When Nanette raised her heavy head, the girl looked at Erin with her brown locks curling around a face lost and blank.
That was all Nanette said. Erin blinked. The [Princess] stirred and looked like she almost wanted to embrace the girl, but she held still. Erin half-turned, then focused on Nanette.
“Does…does that mean you want to come with me? It’s your choice, Nanette.”
The young [Witch] spoke almost instantly, her voice distant.
“If that’s what my mother said, I’ll go. You met Califor?”
“Is she still there?”
Erin closed her eyes.
“No. No…no one is. The lands of the dead—”
Nanette interrupted her again. The little [Witch] looked at Erin and then turned to gaze up to Wiskeria. The ordinary [Witch] bent down, and Nanette spoke softly, to Erin, to Wiskeria.
“I’m going to sit down again. Tell me when I should go.”
“Are you—don’t you have questions?”
Erin faltered, but Nanette just looked back at Erin. For a moment, her lips seemed to writhe and burst—then her hat weighed down her tongue, and she shook her head.
“I’m tired. Did my mother say anything to me?”
“I have…there are some things that…”
A third time, Nanette’s eyes flickered, and her voice went flattest of all.
“Okay. I’ll listen. Later. I want to sit down, now. Wiskeria?”
Wiskeria took the hand and tried to draw some of the sadness out, but Nanette jerked her hand back and stared up at her. Wiskeria took her hand and nothing else and went for the door.
“But…okay. Okay, I’ll find you, alright, Nanette?”
Erin was staring, her face stricken, as she saw Nanette’s hat. Only then did her eyes find Wiskeria. The Witch of Law tipped her hat.
“Hello, Witch Erin Solstice. It’s good to meet you. I’m Wiskeria. Belavierr’s daughter. I trust we’ll speak again later.”
A little Gnoll made a sound of choking horror. Erin’s eyes opened wide.
The [Princess] shrieked at the same time as the Hobgoblin nearly drew his sword. Wiskeria pushed the door open and led Nanette outside. She looked down at the girl. Only when she was outside and the door had closed did Nanette fall over.
She didn’t collapse. Nor did she faint. She just keeled over, forwards, and would have slammed her nose into the ground had Wiskeria not caught her just in time. The older [Witch] grunted and lifted Nanette up.
The young [Witch] was still awake, but her face was pale and her eyes stared at nothing. Wiskeria gently carried her away from the throne room and to her home. She put Nanette into her bed, and the girl stared up at the ceiling. Wiskeria pointed at her hat.
“Sacrifice your sadness or use it, Nanette. It’s been too long. It will be your end.”
The girl didn’t respond, and it was her choice. So Wiskeria left. And she knew—knew that even when Nanette stirred, even when she went back to sit under that tree, and even though her mother had sent back a mortal agent to take care of her—even then, with her name hanging in the air—
The girl shed not a single tear.
The first day at Riverfarm was mostly settling in. Introducing themselves. Telling what needed to be told, like a version of Erin’s witnessing of the lands of the dead.
Whether or not anyone believed was up to them. Erin herself listened to the tale of Belavierr and Riverfarm’s rise to power and had to reckon with tales of a young Chieftain who had burned a path across Riverfarm and nearly destroyed the [Emperor]’s lands.
An [Innkeeper] met an [Emperor]. An [Innkeeper] met [Witches]. Erin Solstice stood before Mavika, Agratha, Oliyaya, Hedag, and a few other [Witches] and greeted them somewhat formally. Agratha was knitting energetically.
“You have no hat. Will you make one? There’s a contest, my dear. A [Witch] should have a hat. And you should apprentice yourself with one of us. Or we could find a suitable teacher.”
“A contest? I dunno, I’m no good at sewing and stuff. I’ll get a hat, don’t worry. But, uh, I’ve never been a hat-girl. But I am a [Witch]. It’s just, I’ll be my kind of [Witch], y’know?”
The older [Witches] exchanged glances, and not even Hedag laughed. Mavika leaned forwards, and Erin leaned back from the hooked nose and expression.
“You were taught by the greatest [Witches] ever to walk this world. Will you share their craft?”
“Oh—sure. I mean, they didn’t teach me huge things. More like the basics and some tricks. But anything I can. Absolutely. I want to help people. That’s part of why I came here.”
The [Witches] looked at each other and muttered. Another difficult one. Oliyaya cackled and shook her head.
“I will not teach her! Nor will I be a good apprentice. She has no craft, either. So. Let us listen and speak and learn each other. Welcome, Witch.”
She tipped her hat to Erin, and this time, it was like one of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, a genteel gesture from a stranger to a stranger. Erin smiled uncertainly and gave everyone a thumbs-up. Mavika stared at the thumb like she wanted to bite it off.
However, it wasn’t all like that. Erin was assigned a house, and her entire group got no less than six guest houses between them. They didn’t even end up using them all, but such was Laken’s attitude towards his guests from Liscor.
They were to be treated like Lord Gralton or Yitton Byres. Any amenities within reason should be given to them, and if they wanted for entertainment, they’d have it. Erin had no timetable for her vacation, nor anything but two vague goals of ‘Goblins’ and ‘Nanette’. She was, in many ways, an exceptionally inconvenient visitor.
The next day, Erin’s group split up. They had a fine breakfast delivered to them in their very comfortable houses, and it began to feel like a vacation in earnest. Even Mrsha began to be a bit less snuffly, and so everyone agreed to split up and try to enjoy their visit to the Unseen Empire.
Unlike yesterday, it wasn’t standing around awkwardly making conversations or delivering news. It was, disquietingly, unbelievably—
Sort of fun.
Think about it. Unlike Liscor, or even Pallass, this was a land where a Goblin could walk around and not alarm people. Even the Walled City of Invention was not as safe as Laken’s lands where he saw almost everything.
It meant little Gnolls could not cause trouble, even if they tried. There was no inn to run, and they were literally out of range of a magic door that could deliver trouble to them. Even the Mage’s Guild wasn’t strong enough for Erin to really send rapid-fire [Messages] back home to worry about the High Passes.
Riverfarm was an oasis, a remote part of Izril. As vacations went, it might not have pristine beaches or magnificent cliff faces or even much water aside from the river, but it was free. And lest anyone think it was some place with nothing to do—
The interesting things found the visitors. In the case of Ser Dalimont, a hand literally pulled him out of marching behind Lyonette. He turned, looked up into a face like stone, and Durene peered down at the Thronebearer.
“You’re a [Knight].”
“I am. Er, Lady Durene?”
The half-Troll girl’s face crinkled up in amusement.
“It’s just Durene. You’re those Thronebearers of Calanfer? Your armor’s wonderful.”
She wore none of the armor of yesterday, but she had a huge mace strapped to her back and a tower shield as well. She was far taller than Dalimont, but she didn’t loom—and there was something about her that was uncannily familiar to Dalimont.
The other three Thronebearers were far warier, although they were studiously polite, but Durene just nodded as she looked Dalimont up and down. She checked her simple tunic and leggings and then pointed to the south.
“…Laken told me an undead horde popped out of some old cemetery. There’s about one to two hundred coming north, and I’m going to fight them before they get near a village. Let’s go together.”
“Wh—an undead horde?”
Lyonette turned, but Durene hastily raised her hands.
“Shh! Laken said to keep it quiet. It’s a tiny one, and it’s thirty miles away. I’ll deal with it myself. You should come with me, though.”
“Us? Fight a hundred undead? What kind? Zombies? Skeletons?”
“Some Ghouls. Maybe more. I’m not taking my armor. You should take off yours.”
The Thronebearers of Calanfer stared up at Durene, and then Dalimont realized why she felt so…familiar. He had read a briefing report on her, and he knew the half-Troll girl’s unusual class.
[Paladin]. She stood before the [Knights], unarmored save for her skin and the shield and mace she carried. Durene flexed one arm and looked at them challengingly.
“Why not? Riverfarm’s peaceful. If we don’t take risks—how do we improve? Are you [Knights] or not? I’m a [Paladin] by the way. Sorry—um, Your Majesty? I didn’t mean to steal your bodyguard.”
“None taken, Lady Durene.”
Lyonette breathed faintly. She was definitely unused to meeting the consort of an [Emperor] who was both Durene and Durene. The Thronebearers were formulating a polite refusal when Dalimont removed his helmet.
“…It would be my pleasure, Paladin Durene. Give me five minutes to remove my armor. Princess Marquin, by your leave, I would like to request permission to accompany Paladin Durene on her mission.”
Lyonette turned, and Ser Sest gave Dalimont a look as if he were insane. But Dalimont looked up at Durene, and his past in Noelictus lay before him.
“It would be my honor. I have known one [Paladin] before you, Dame Durene. To fight by one’s side again is a privilege.”
Durene’s eyes widened and then crinkled up again with delight. Lyonette looked at Dalimont and made a vague shooing gesture.
“Er—very well. Riverfarm is safe. Why not?”
Of course, no Thronebearer would let Lyonette go completely unguarded, so Ser Lormel got to stay behind, but that was how three Thronebearers, divested of their armor, began jogging after Durene as she loped into the distance. Ser Sest loudly panted after Durene.
“I say, did you, uh, say thirty miles, Dame Durene? How shall we get there?”
“Run? We’ll get there by nightfall.”
“I see, I see—wait, what?”
However, then he just ran after Durene, who kept her head held high and smiled as she ran. She was changing too; this was not the first time she had gone, alone, to fight monsters.
Mind you, if Durene had wanted proper companions for a fight, she could have recruited far more than just the Thronebearers, but she still did not like Goblins.
And since Pyrite’s ghost had warned Numbtongue that the Troll girl was somewhat ornery and had a swing that could take his head off, the [Bard] decided not to run thirty miles and fight a few hundred undead. As fun as that sounded.
He was doing a [Bard] thing. Numbtongue had slept in a house the first night, but he decided he might spend the rest of the time in Riverfarm in the Goblinlands. He had seen the two walls that protected the Goblins from the Humans and vice-versa, and now he sat in their, well, village.
Not a town. They were behind the Humans in numbers and buildings, but they had homes. In fact, they had a well. They had a mine, and, as Numbtongue tuned his guitar, he watched some industrious Goblins hefting pickaxes, buckets, and even pushing a cart and going into the mines.
“You mine and sell with the Humans?”
He looked disbelievingly at one of the former Goldstone Goblins who led the mining crews. The Goblin picked at his teeth.
“Is good work. Humans want iron. They give us things. Pillows, gold, food—what, you not work?”
“…I’m a [Bard]. I live in the inn. With Erin?”
Numbtongue reminded the Goblin. This one had never been to The Wandering Inn, so he gave Numbtongue a toothy grin.
“Oh! So you don’t work. Is good for some.”
Numbtongue had forgotten quite how savage Goblins were. Verbally, at least. He looked around and saw most of the Goblins did actually have something to do. Even if they weren’t mining, there were all the tasks of a settlement to perform: cooking, like Pebblesnatch making pumpernickel bread, building a new home, but often, the Goblins performed jobs for a trading colony, which is what they were.
They didn’t have to have [Seamstresses] or [Tailors] because they could trade for clothing. Rather, you had Hobs like Raidpear who trained—and helped by making hide armor out of animals being hunted. Or, like Leafarmor, made armor. Out of leaves.
It was, to look at the Goblins, the most relaxed, idyllic lifestyle imaginable. And that begged the question—why had Ulvama left?
She was with Numbtongue, or at least, in the Goblinlands. She was wandering about, inspecting buildings, poking Goblins, but most answered curtly and shooed her off, and even when the [Shaman] tried to boss them or jab them with her staff, they ignored her.
“Hm. Ulvama was here? What was she like?”
Numbtongue directed his question to Leafarmor, since the other [Mining Foreman] had to get to work. The Hob grunted a reply at her Redfang brother.
“Bossy. Power grab. Keep Goblins alive, though. Wanted all leave. Didn’t like [Emperor].”
Leafarmor gave Numbtongue a speculative look, then shrugged.
“He not worst one. Ulvama helped. Many Goblins not-dead. But…”
She waved a hand at Ulvama and grimaced, which said it all with the way that Leafarmor slapped a leaf onto her newest piece of equipment. Necessary, but not fun.
That was the Ulvama experience. She had helped hold the Goblins together…but none had followed her, not even Pebblesnatch. She stood alone in the Goblinlands, looking the most disconsolate that Numbtongue had ever seen.
He felt bad for her, a bit. She wasn’t evil, just Ulvama. The very qualities that made her dislikable at times were put in the service of Goblins. In fact…Numbtongue began to strum on his guitar, and Leafarmor’s ears perked up.
“She isn’t that bad. Ulvama came to The Wandering Inn, but did you know what she did next? Hey, Goblins. Come over here!”
He waved some over, and a [Rotter], Holdnose, dragged his pot over and was instantly shooed away at the noxious smell. But more Goblins listened or drifted over, and Numbtongue relocated so his voice could reach the mines. Thoughtfully, he began to play and felt an approving smile on his back.
Pyrite sat and watched his tribe working. Numbtongue swore he would introduce Pyrite for a minute, but first, the [Bard] did what a [Bard] should.
He told them stories. With a laugh, Numbtongue found the first one to tell.
“Ulvama fought the Witch of Webs, did you know? She went all the way to the Gnoll Plains for a silly little girl and joined a Fellowship of the Inn! Have you ever heard of the legendary, the unforgettable [Goblinfriend Bug-Captain]? Sit around, I will tell you her name!”
So the Goblins sat and laughed, and Pebblesnatch raced over to sit and listen—until her bread began to burn. And Ulvama watched as the Cave Goblin raced around, shrieking, and looked at peaceful Riverfarm.
“Is good. Is happy.”
She muttered to herself as Numbtongue strummed. Ulvama searched for the…the unease she had felt when she left. She didn’t sense it as strongly. But that just made her more worried.
If it was gone…why? She hobbled around, sniffing the air, and knew she would not stay. But for a little bit—she leaned over Pebblesnatch’s outdoor kitchen and patted the little Cave Goblin on the head until Pebblesnatch leaned against her. Then Ulvama stole half of Pebblesnatch’s bread because she was hungry.
It turned out Pebblesnatch had levelled up. It was halfway decent damn bread.
It was amazing how many connections there were between Riverfarm and Liscor. Then again, Ryoka had been to both.
Garia Strongheart did not go with Numbtongue to the Goblinlands. She’d thought about it, but she had to admit, she wasn’t that at home with so many Goblins. Numbtongue? Obviously, but Riverfarm interested her enough as a [Farmer]’s daughter.
“So you’re growing cotton, now? I hear it’s a pain to pick.”
“His Majesty’s got us to work on a way to pick it fast. Miss Griffin had some kind of tool—but it’s important to have cotton. Everything needs it, but yes, we’ll spin off a huge area for farming the stuff.”
“Are you irrigating or just relying on Skills?”
Mister Prost had introduced Garia to Farmer Ram when he’d heard Garia came from the semi-famous Strongheart farm. Now, the man was showing her around.
There was a bit of, oh, competitiveness. A kind of friendly rivalry between mundane and magical farmers. Ram laughed as he pointed out the many [Farmers] working the fields.
“Don’t need no fancy magic, Runner Garia! We’ve got nigh on at least thirty farmers pushing up around Level 30, and we can combine our Skills. Frankly, we’ve got more farmers than farmland at the moment, but we’re sowing new fields every day. How much, er, Sage’s Grass does your farm produce?”
Garia grinned as he shot her a competitive glance.
“More than all of Riverfarm will. If you want to see a plague of gnats eating your Sage’s Grass, be my guest. Or a hundred moles going after a single field of thirty plants?”
The man shuddered, and Garia laughed.
“My dad’s careful about how much magic we have. He has nullifiers so animals can’t detect it, and he harvests them before they get big. But he has other plants! I heard you have pumpkins for the fall? Ever seen an invisible pumpkin?”
“No, I’ve never seen—hah!”
Ram laughed and elbowed her, and Garia giggled.
“I’ll get you some seeds. My dad’s also got some sour fruits that spit liquid.”
“Well, in that case, we’ll get him some of our seeds, how about that? We’re buying some of the best plants, but we’ve got some lovely carrot seeds—let me get you a packet.”
It was all quite fun, and Garia did like touring Riverfarm. It would have been even more fun if it weren’t for the loud, slightly braying harumph from the side. Garia turned her head, and Ram looked sideways.
“…Something wrong, Miss Charlay?”
“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking back to when me and Ryoka were here. That’s how I met her, did I ever say? Riverfarm. Charlay and Ryoka. I’m amazed it’s not part of her story. I mean, it’s practically how she mastered wind magic and became the Wind Runner. Have you, er, heard from her recently, Garia?”
Garia, the [Martial Artist] City Runner, eyed Charlay. The Centauress was a somewhat familiar face in Riverfarm. Not only was she an esteemed guest, she often ran the region for work.
“Really? She disembarked from First Landing, you know.”
“I know. It was on the scrying orb.”
“Yes, well, I know because I’m her friend. And I got a letter from her. She writes, now and then. How…many letters do you get?”
The Centauress was getting on Garia’s nerves. But Garia smiled politely. She knew what Charlay was doing. It wasn’t a competition. Mostly because Garia had known Ryoka far longer than Charlay.
“I don’t get many letters.”
“Oh, too bad!”
“I’ll catch up with Ryoka when she visits Celum or Invrisil or Liscor. We always meet, so I don’t need to stay in touch that way.”
Mister Ram saw Charlay nearly miss a step and decided to move to the other side, out of range of a flying hoof or a punch, per se. Charlay harrumphed as the Witch Runner, Alevica, rolled her eyes. All Alevica wanted to do was size up the competition. Garia…Alevica nodded to herself.
Seems like someone not to hex. Charlay snapped back, coming out with it directly.
“Well, I’m Ryoka’s best friend, just so you know! She and I are both foreigners. We have a connection.”
“I’m not saying you two aren’t friends! What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m her best friend. Best. Friend.”
“You’ve only known her for a few months! I knew her when she first came to Celum!”
“Yeah, and she left Celum. She told me all about how bad your Runner’s Guild was. Persua. I bet you’re one of her people.”
“Persua? You take that back.”
Garia’s fists balled up, but Charlay just danced around her, kicking up some dirt.
“Prove you know Ryoka better than I do. Tell me her favorite food! Or—how many adventures have you been on with her? Or—”
“What’s her middle name?”
Charlay paused, mid-taunt, and Garia turned. Mister Ram eyed Alevica, and the Witch Runner smiled nastily.
“Er, what, Alevica?”
Charlay coughed, and Alevica grinned.
“What’s her middle name? Surely her best friends would know it.”
Ryoka Dawning Griffin’s best friends exchanged a look. Charlay harrumphed, but her tail swished uncertainly.
“I—of course I know it. I have it written down. In my diary. But who remembers middle names? Just give me one second—”
“Me too. I’ll just—”
They both began to walk, then run, then sprint back to Riverfarm. Then they began shoving each other—right until Charlay kicked dust into Garia’s face. An outraged [Martial Artist] launched a flying kick at the screaming Centauress, but they split up. Charlay wrote frantically as Garia found her [Message] scroll.
Fierre! It’s me, Charlay! I need you to tell me Ryoka’s middle name!
Hey Fierre, it’s Garia. Just checking in. Do you know what Ryoka’s middle name is…?
Meanwhile, Alevica smugly watched them race into the distance, then race back. She licked one finger, held it up, then began gathering all the animosity up into her hat.
Mister Ram watched the Witch Runner and shook his head. That Alevica was a piece of work.
Other meetings were far less…unpleasant. For instance, while Charlay and Garia were entering into a real feud, egged on by Alevica, someone else was meeting another famous [Witch] of Riverfarm.
Namely, Lyonette and Witch Eloise. They had tea in Eloise’s home, which was already being transformed from the generic house into, well…
A sanctum of tea. Eloise had tea leaves hanging up, at least eight different styles of tea kettle, and she made bags of tea leaves as well as grew small pots of exotic varieties.
For all that, her sitting room had no such clutter, and it was so elegant, a table sitting just so between two comfortable chairs as a custom-fit window gave them a splendid view of the quiet forest and breeze blowing across the leaves changing color, that Lyonette had to press a hand over her heart.
This was elegance. This was the talent of someone who could change a room to a theme. Ser Lormel himself looked respectful and amazed by the short, elderly woman sitting with a simple hat on her head.
She looked humble, and her clothes were not washed every day; they were for work, not carefully tailored gowns that required an entire person to maintain them regularly.
Yet, Lyonette felt, no, she knew, that if Eloise were called upon to walk into a ballroom or attend a royal court, she would not have been out of place. Lyonette inhaled a Calanferian tea blend she hadn’t smelled for over a year. Dawn’s Leaf, pale gold if you held it up, and very mild, with the faintest taste of perhaps maple.
She looked at Eloise over her cup and had to ask.
“Are you…her? Witch Eloise, I do beg your pardon. But I am simply, utterly in awe.”
There was only one person who could have this much of Terandria and yet be…a [Witch]. Lyonette had heard of a [Lady] who had left her life to become a primitive [Witch]. In her youth, she had known the name as a cautionary tale, someone to deride or mock or pity.
Now? She looked into the twinkling eyes of Eloise, and the [Witch of Tea] put down her cup.
“As one ages, they develop a reputation, Princess Marquin. I don’t believe I deserve awe for simply having lived a full life. Anyone who reaches my age generally has done one thing of note, at least. Or have you not met the lady of fire? Now there was someone who leaves the world poorer and colder.”
“Even so. Even so, I am delighted to make your acquaintance.”
Lyonette murmured. Eloise chuckled.
“And I, you! This may be poor fare, but will you take some snacks? I made them out of walnuts I gathered.”
“Oh, allow me to share some cookies from Liscor. I have the recipe…Ser Lormel?”
Eloise watched as Lyonette fumbled with her bag of holding and then had Lormel present them. A mix of [Barmaid] and [Princess]. Her eyes were knowing, because Lyonette was walking down a road Eloise had travelled long ago. So the [Witch] delicately accepted the recipe and nibbled at a cookie, smiling.
“Shall we then talk of home, Miss Lyonette? Let us be women from home, not our classes. And speak frankly. If you would like, I have some poor advice to share.”
Lyonette leaned forwards, then caught herself and smiled. She raised her cup, and it chimed as Eloise touched hers to it. Both smiled in delight, like dignified girls playing at being [Ladies]. It made Eloise look so very young.
Unlike Lyonette, Inkar visited Witch Oliyaya, and that was an experience. The [Witch] peered at Inkar as the [Worldly Traveller] inspected the charms Oliyaya had made.
“You want to buy my craft, eh? I don’t care for gold like some. What have you, girl who smells of Gnolls?”
Inkar had already given Oliyaya the cheese gift, but the [Witch] was unmoved. She recognized the product of a Skill, and Inkar gestured around.
“I would like to trade for many things, Witch Oliyaya. I am from Longstalker’s Fang, and I have a few things—”
She delved into her bag of holding and came out with a bolt of fabric that Oliyaya’s hands hovered over.
“Oh. Oh, is this Shockwoolie wool? A fine bolt of cloth. Silver from Silverfangs? Naturally mined. For a few charms, I could trade.”
Inkar bowed her head politely.
“I would love to see what you have—but I would also like to trade with many [Witches]. They have many crafts, don’t they?”
“They do! But if you think even that cloth will buy much—a [Witch] is no [Craftsman] to churn out goods. Nor do I think that bag of holding has enough treasures.”
It did not, and Inkar knew that well enough. She had bought some Shield Spider venom from Liscor, and she had other trade goods from the Meeting of Tribes, but she took a breath and looked Oliyaya in the eyes.
Which was not easy, because they seemed to pop out of the [Witch]’s head, and they were a disconcertingly lurid green that stared like, well, a scary [Witch]. But it was an experienced [Traveler] who held her own.
“May I purchase some charms and your craft to take back to Longstalker’s Fang and any tribes who wish it, Witch Oliyaya? And from the other [Witches]?”
The cackle from Oliyaya was loud, but not outraged. She stared down at Inkar, leaning forwards until her breath—oddly minty, not foul—blew across Inkar’s face.
“You want to buy my goods on credit?”
Only then did Inkar see the twinkle in the old [Witch]’s gaze. Oliyaya turned her head innocently, but it was too late. Inkar’s smile grew, and the [Witch] cackled and cursed, but good-naturedly.
“I promise on my name and Longstalker’s Fang’s honor it will come to Riverfarm, Witch Oliyaya. There is a door in Invrisil, and it can cut a journey short from Invrisil to Pallass.”
“Eight hundred miles and the Bloodfields gone. True, true. And what would you offer?”
Oliyaya squatted over a mortar and pestle that a girl with burn scars was working over, sifting through fennel with her fingers. Inkar responded, her eyes on Oliyaya’s dark clothing—fine and magical, but old like the [Witch].
“I know a great [Spinner], Honored Deskie, Witch Oliyaya. There are other goods as well.”
“Deskie the Magic Spinner. I know that name. Ah, and her clothing you wear. Well then, well then. I will trade you my craft. If you ensure that any trade of cloth she makes comes to me, before any other. Then I shall introduce you to the others.”
The [Witch] laughed again, and then she was spreading her work before Inkar, and the [Traveler] was writing down charms and what Oliyaya wanted to send to Eska. After all—if you travelled so far to distant lands, only a fool would not trade.
There were, in fact, a few meetings which would have larger consequences. Although the ramifications might not be apparent immediately, they bore instant fruit.
Such as Laken Godart. He was relaxing and trying not to focus on the point of distant irritation that was Erin. The foreign hostility was really affecting him, but he enjoyed hearing of the antics of the others, and he’d decided just to get back to work.
“Hm. Bandits have come over the border.”
“Poor souls, Your Majesty. I will alert General Wiskeria and Beniar at once.”
Mister Prost stepped out as Lady Rie took Prost’s place. She still unsettled him. She was changed, markedly, from her being called by the Circle of Thorns. Oh, it was hard to tell what had changed her very body at first.
If you knew her, she would have seemed unnaturally more vital, as if someone had injected her with energy. The faint, faint tinge to her skin, her teeth? Well, the proof in the pudding, to use an expression, was in her talents.
Namely, the ability to wrestle her bodyguard in terms of strength, a boundless energy—and a nature that unsettled the [Witches], though even Mavika had warned Laken it might not have been obvious had they not known.
For now, Rie was the perfect administrator of Riverfarm’s diplomatic arm. And to her employers, she was the plant in the Unseen Empire, a useful tool.
Unbeknownst to them, Rie could ignore their orders, but she played along. A weapon to combat the Circle from the inside.
Not that Laken wanted to go up against what was apparently an entirely shadowy cabal, so Rie just delivered her report quietly.
“They are asking me to look into House Veltras via any means possible, Your Majesty. I told them I have few avenues, but they asked me to copy any correspondence between you and Lord Tyrion.”
“I see. Ryoka must truly worry them. Well, anything about Erin?”
“Only demand for anything about her <Quests> or plans.”
“I see. Well, keep scrying orbs away from Erin. In case she has—what did that Lyonette call them? ‘Solstice events’? How amazing. If something becomes public knowledge, you’ll have to inform them, but otherwise, she is a pleasant guest only interested in Goblins.”
He could tell Rie was smiling. The benefit of having someone altered in that—ritual—was that her new bosses believed she was incapable of being a traitor. Which, to be fair, without Tamaroth’s help, would have been the case.
She had never spoken of it, except to say it was the most unpleasant experience of her life, and also altering. Laken had begun letting Durene go on her self-imposed challenges when Rie had come back.
He needed warriors on par with Griffon Hunt. Spies, capable agents as well. That was his next goal. But the [Emperor] was taking his leisure as Rie departed, and he sat in his home, resting in a wonderful reclining chair that had just been engineered by Gamel’s fiancée, Tessia. Forget trebuchets…this was the real achievement of engineering.
Then Laken sat up slightly.
An intruder had entered his home. Gamel had spotted the assailant, but Laken held up a hand. Someone had come to meet the [Emperor] in private. After all, it was only appropriate they should meet.
Your Majesty. I am a correspondent of [Kings]. They know me from Chandrar to Baleros. Forsooth, it is I! Let us talk as equals!
Mrsha the Great and Terrible held up a card. Laken Godart sat up slightly as the little Gnoll girl, who he had been told had white fur which made her a Doombearer, stood in front of him.
He thought she was holding something up.
“Er…is it Mrsha? Do you have something you want to say to me, Miss Mrsha?”
The little Gnoll girl faltered. She stared at her note—then Laken’s closed eyes. Then she realized he was blind.
She’d known that—but he’d moved around so easily she had forgotten blind meant you couldn’t read. Unless it was braille. And she couldn’t speak.
Oh no. Mrsha tapped her speaking stone, and a bright voice chirped.
“Hi, I’m Mrsha!”
“Hi! Read my note, stupid!”
Laken Godart felt Gamel shifting as Mrsha realized that Gire’s pre-recorded lines could be more…tactful. He turned his head.
“Ah, Gamel? Please read the note?”
He sat there as Mrsha’s eloquent speech was read out loud by Gamel. The girl was fidgeting, and when Gamel read her statements, Laken…twitched.
What an annoying kid. He smiled politely at Mrsha.
“I’m afraid I am resting, Miss Mrsha. It was lovely to meet you, but I am an [Emperor].”
Mrsha scribbled, and he had to wait for her to pass a note to Gamel.
But I’m Mrsha! I know Fetohep of Khelt! And the Titan of Baleros! Let’s talk about important things! I’m a Doombearer, you know. Plus, I’m cute.
Laken Godart sat there. He considered her words and actually wondered if they might be true for a second. Then he caught himself, shook his head, and spoke.
“Gamel, please take Miss Mrsha out and find her mother or some children her age.”
What? You can’t do this! You stupid fool! No one ignores Mrsha the Great and—
Gamel picked up Mrsha and, ignoring her squirming, carried her outside. Laken Godart sat in his recliner, then he lay back.
“Children. Was I that bad? Eugh.”
She reminded him of a giant Sariant Lamb.
Mrsha the Indignant Parcel squirmed, but she didn’t quite dare punch or bite Gamel. Even so, when he put her down with a bunch of Riverfarm’s children who got to play outdoors, she listened to him tell her off.
“His Majesty is not to be disturbed. Hey, you lot! This girl would like to play. Keep an eye on her?”
Oh, he’d pay. So would that [Emperor]. Mrsha was going to get right back in and assert dominance! She was just about to slink off as Gamel marched away when someone ran up.
“You’re a Gnoll!”
Mrsha turned and stared at a girl with pigtails who grinned in delight at her. Mrsha pointed at her face.
Who, me? Well observed, dummy. But she didn’t say that. The girl peered at Mrsha.
“Can’t you speak?”
“No, she can’t, remember? But she’s fast! Did you see her crawling through the [Emperor]’s window? You oughtn’t to do that, Miss. Let’s play instead! We’ve got a soccer ball, and we’re going to the new fields. There’s a game!”
Another boy around eleven urged Mrsha. She turned her head. Plebians! She was Mrsha the Great and—
“Your fur’s so nice! It’s white. Is it hard to keep clean? I love it!”
The girl touched Mrsha’s fur! The Gnoll child slapped the hand and was about to growl. Yeah, she was a Doombearer. Doombearer! So don’t think she was—
Then she saw the curious children around her, mostly Humans, and hesitated. Mrsha looked around, and they crowded over, asking what Gnolls ate, if she ran around on all fours, and what she was wearing—a kilt.
And she realized not one, not even Drake children, knew what the heck a Doombringer or Doombearer was. They barely knew what a Gnoll was. She couldn’t speak, but most of them could read, and they oohed as she produced her bag of holding.
Mrsha the Amazingly Interesting stood amidst the children. And then the notions of bothering an [Emperor] vanished. She produced her special magical ball and threw it and then began to race around with the children who barely knew her name or cared why her fur was white. Within five minutes, she was laughing, her slight cold forgotten.
Then she realized this lot had never seen a Liscorian playground. And they had never thrown a proper riot. Mrsha the Troublemaker decided she had to show these yokels how a real Liscorian kid did things. And she had the most fun she had ever had in the last year in the first hour of play.
There was something for everyone in Riverfarm. Whether it was just seeing something new, being found valuable, or making an opportunity. For everyone.
He was depressed, because Inkar had wanted to negotiate with the [Witches], and she had forbidden him from joining in. Tkrn had no head for trade, and he caved before Inkar in deals. He was walking about, smelling this town, and admiring the roads.
“Brick. Look at it. So smooth. And they’re working on sewers?”
The Gnoll felt embarrassed when people stared at him, but even Liscor didn’t have roads this obsessively well-built in every spot. Of course, he couldn’t have known how Laken’s brick roads were among his most unpopular decisions.
Tkrn was a [Guardsman]. He just knew how many times an uneven cobblestone could snap a wagon wheel and cause a headache. Speaking of which, he was admiring how Riverfarm was laid out. It had neat intersections and was built such that you didn’t have to go far from the main thoroughfare to reach any one spot. Again, far better than a windy side road.
However—Riverfarm was still a former village, and it wasn’t used to the levels of traffic it was getting. [Merchants] had started coming in to trade with Riverfarm, and the other parts of the Unseen Empires sent their own wagons and Runners, and so Tkrn found himself walking on the sidewalk as more and more carts fought for the center of the road, mixing with villagers who often crossed the street anywhere they chose, forcing a [Driver] to stop.
In short, they had a bad traffic system, unlike Liscor, where anyone not crossing the street at crosswalks would get cursed out. Tkrn was just thinking it might cause problems when he heard a tremendous bang.
He had a hand on his sword in a moment, but it wasn’t a fight—the cursing up ahead made Tkrn break into a run. Then he saw it.
The busiest road in Riverfarm was the main one, and where it had a four-way stop, someone who wasn’t looking with their wagon had collided with another wagon. Thankfully, the horses were fine, but they’d halted to assess the damage.
Unfortunately, someone else was trying to turn and had to stop. They tried to reverse—only to find four huge, loaded wagons behind them. Suddenly, the horses were boxed in, a pair of ponies reared—and no less than two dozen wagons were in the intersection, unable to turn around as more came to a stop and created more of a blockage.
Tkrn saw the pileup of vehicles and heard the cursing. [Drivers] stood up and began shouting at the people in the center, who looked ready to fight over the damages as more called for others to stop, and horses began to complain about the claustrophobic space. The people of Riverfarm didn’t help; they had walked into the street, but they were just adding to the blockage.
“Drakes’ ancestors! It’s the famous—no. Is it?”
Tkrn passed by a horrified Mister Prost and a few men and women wearing Riverfarm’s livery. The local Watch saw Tkrn trotting left and right, and the [Guardsman] shook his head.
“It is! It’s the legendary five-way cart fullbody pileup!”
Mister Prost was in a mortal horror. Today of all days! With the guests! This was the third major traffic jam this week, and this was the worst yet. But the excited Gnoll from Liscor, that distant city, was gesturing and commentating to the others.
“I’ve never seen a traffic jam this bad. See how each cart is stuck? They all have to reverse or go forwards, but there are five directions each one has to go because that idiot was in the middle of a turn, and she’s facing a wall. It’s the most glorious disaster. It could take hours to sort out. Days, if the traffic gets stuck in multiple streets. I heard a horse once died of starvation before they unstuck the jam.”
Prost groaned. He turned to the other members of Riverfarm’s new Watch.
“Well—get the carts backed up! Pull ‘em back, and someone feed the horses if they’re going to die. Stop those idiots from fighting!”
“Where—where should we go, Mister Prost? There’s only four of us!”
A young [Guardswoman] protested. The completely and utterly blank look on her face offended Tkrn. He waited as Prost turned left and right.
“Go—go down that street. You two.”
“And do what, sir?”
“Back up the carts.”
“Where should they go?”
Tkrn’s mouth actually opened. He waited for Prost to kick the young woman out of the Watch, but the [Steward] seemed as lost as she was.
Because they had never been in a big city. Before Prost could figure something else out, Tkrn snapped.
“Wait a second. You don’t leave—blow your whistle! What’s your traffic alarm and backup call?”
The Humans looked at Tkrn. The young [Guardswoman] gave Tkrn a blank stare.
“Where’s your whistle?”
She hesitated and looked at the other three Watch members, who shrugged.
“I don’t have one.”
Tkrn’s jaw dropped.
“You don’t have—? Then how do you call for help?”
“Well, if there’s a problem, His Majesty knows, or we shout for help.”
“You shout for—wait a second. Are you actually [Guards] or are you just wearing the gear? This is a traffic stop! You whistle for help, get a [Sergeant] in the center, and begin blocking streets off! You don’t reverse carts—you make sure more aren’t coming to add to the problem! And someone has to stop those idiots before they brawl!”
Indeed, a furious Human was shouting at a half-Elf, and they looked ready to punch each other out. But the Humans were just giving Tkrn a huge look.
“What’s all that about? We’re [Militia], not [Guards]! Most Watch don’t have [Guards] classes. You get that after a few months if you’re good. I was a Watch member in a town before this.”
A strident man jerked a thumb at his chest. Tkrn looked him up and down.
“Well, with training like that, no wonder! How long did you spend in training, Watchman? Where’s your gear?”
The man looked perplexed.
“Training? I spent three days following an older fellow around, and then I got given a club and a shield. You’re from those fancy Drake cities, aren’t you?”
Tkrn’s blank stare was morphing into one of slow, dawning horror. He’d heard jokes about the north’s Watches, but he hadn’t really understood the truth behind the jokes.
The north often conflated their militias or standing armies with the Watch. Moreover, adventurers often did the job of [Guards]. Tkrn had spent four months as a trainee, and then he’d spent two years in probation as a junior guardsman before becoming a full-time one.
Zevara’s new influx to the Watch had left the [Watch Captain] stressed out that she was reducing their performance rushing them into the job. If she’d seen Riverfarm, she would have probably been breathing magma.
He spoke, taking charge without realizing he was doing it.
“Alright. You—find the Watch. You have a headquarters? Get me—twenty-three. There will be four at each intersection, blocking off the road and navigating the horses back. You, post them to each street.”
“How do I—?”
“Four per street is sixteen. Count how many go where. Send the rest to me. You two, with me. Hey!”
Tkrn put his whistle in his mouth and blew it. The beginnings of a brawl in the center of the street broke up as people put their hands over their ears and turned. They saw a Gnoll stomping down the street, bawling in a familiar, practiced manner.
“Liscor’s—I mean, Riverfarm Watch coming through! Please, go about your business! Clear the streets! Sir, I don’t have time for—sir, wait over there. Now, shut up—let’s get everyone out of this jam, first. If your cart’s damaged or your horses are hurt, wait unless someone’s bleeding. Quiet—”
Mister Prost watched as Tkrn began giving out orders. The Gnoll only realized he had taken command from the actual [Steward] of Riverfarm when Prost began adding his voice to the mix.
“Oh—I didn’t mean to take charge, sir!”
Tkrn saluted, feeling a sinking feeling in his stomach. How important was a [Steward]? But Prost just shook Tkrn’s paw.
“That was fantastic, Guardsman! Do they really train [Guards] to do all that?”
“What, traffic control? It’s part of the job. Do you not have anything like that?”
Prost shook his head.
“No, but we will, and His Majesty himself will want to speak to you! Do you have time to talk with His Majesty?”
Tkrn squeaked, but Prost was already steering him towards a blind man who was witnessing the horrific traffic jam being dispersed with actual competency for once. Laken Godart spoke without turning his head.
“Mister Prost, I heard some of that. I believe we need to import some of the Watch practices from the Drakes posthaste. And fix our street problems.”
“Absolutely, Your Majesty. Guardsman, how does Liscor solve this?”
Tkrn scratched his head, but he blurted out what he knew.
“Traffic problems? If it’s a bad street, a [Guardsman] will direct traffic, or we’ll tell people to go another route. But if it’s just a bad jam, we have to sometimes just organize the carts or everyone tries to go at the same time. There’s always some Creler-for-brains who tries to go ahead of everyone else and causes this. Er—sorry for the language, Your Majesty.”
Laken was listening intently. He smiled reassuringly at Tkrn.
“Not at all. Mister Prost, someone to direct traffic would be welcome. But it rather sounds to me like what we need is…a traffic light.”
Tkrn’s ears perked up. Prost looked at Laken with a familiar curiosity.
“A what, sire?”
Laken tapped a finger to his lips.
“Get me Nesor and a few [Mages]. A [Witch] too, perhaps. And…Jelov. Actually, I just put on fresh clothes, and I don’t want to get wet again, even if it seems like rain later today. Make it Master Helm. I suppose we can make it out of metal. Guardsman Tkrn, are you free to consult with us for, oh, an hour?”
“I—of course, Your Majesty?”
Tkrn was sweating, and Prost noticed.
“Someone get Guardsman Tkrn a refreshing drink. And anything to eat? This way, Your Majesty…”
And that was how Tkrn found himself walking with Emperor Laken Godart as the [Emperor] asked some curious magic-users if they could enchant a piece of metal to show different-colored lights. Then Tkrn’s eyes widened, and he looked at Laken.
Of course! Earth folk! He was Inkar’s partner, of course, and she had told him of her world. But she’d never mentioned traffic lights! When he told Zevara about this, she’d be so happy for all the [Guards] who didn’t have to direct traffic, why, she might actually smile at him.
Tkrn was also a bit unhappy, because it explained why, when he’d gone to the simulation of Earth, he’d cut his adventures short twice shortly after seeing a red light and hearing a honking horn coming down the street. Cars were a horrible thing.
Traffic lights. [Bards]. Friendships and tea. A day in Riverfarm was already a bustling thing, but it always was. Nanette sat under a tree again, and not even the news that she might leave with Erin Solstice changed her blank face. Yet there were good meetings for the bad.
As her friends went about their various days, Erin Solstice walked through Riverfarm with Griffon Hunt. She was going to find Nanette, but her friends also deserved their moment, so she watched Cade walk in front of Briganda, who was ready to catch him if he fell or walked in front of a wagon.
Typhenous was eating the newest cookies from Liscor, while Halrac kept pausing to introduce Erin awkwardly to someone he knew. Mostly from Windrest, and the grumpy [Marksman]’s face kept turning remarkably red as someone would make a passing comment.
“Miss Erin, ain’t it? What a lovely lady. Are you thinking of courting young Halrac? The lad could use someone in his life to keep him occupied. As shy as could be growing up.”
Erin kept giggling as Master Helm patted Halrac on the shoulder and showed Erin around his smithy or a woman who’d changed Halrac’s diapers remarked on how a burbling baby was so serious now, but a hero, a Gold-rank adventurer.
The rest of Halrac’s team was enjoying this to no end, but it had to be said—in between Erin visiting people, she was talking.
“So there I was, and I met the most amazing [Archer] with a shining bow. And then a bunch of ‘em, all [Kings] and [Princesses], shooting arrows! They were an entire kingdom of bow-people!”
Erin’s face fell. Halrac gave her a disbelieving look, but he had listened to her tales of the deadlands in silence.
“Yeah. They were brave until the end. I never saw…I wondered if Ulrien might have been there, but I never saw him. How—how was it when I died?”
They were talking, as they walked in the sunlit day, of the things they had both seen when she was dead. Halrac shrugged.
“The Horns went to the Village of the Dead. We went with them. It was damned and foolish, but no one could have stopped them.”
All for you. Erin looked up at Halrac, and her smile turned sad.
“How many people died?”
“Less than most death-raids, Miss Solstice. Less than most. Have you met our resident Mossbear, Bismarck? Halrac, let’s introduce Miss Solstice, but, ah, hide your food, Miss Erin. The fellow is not above bowling someone over for a snack.”
Typhenous interrupted the moment, and Halrac nodded. He straightened—and Erin linked arms with him, much to his discomfort and the delight of his former village. She looked up at him, and he began to pull away.
Were they the closest guest and [Innkeeper]? No. But he had been there for so long—Erin just sighed as she looked around Riverfarm.
“Promise to visit more, Halrac. I’m gonna miss you. But this is a nice place, it seems like. And Pebblesnatch really likes you.”
“It is. Laken Godart saved my village, and I am grateful to him for that.”
He agreed quietly. Erin nodded, and on they walked. Behind them, as Briganda teased Cade with a cookie, Revi and the last member of Erin’s party strolled along.
Revi Cotton and…Gothica. They didn’t say much. Revi strolled along in her [Summoner]’s clothing, glancing at Gothica now and then as the Goblin walked like a shadow under the sun. After about forty minutes of listening to Erin and the others talk, Revi nodded.
“Your outfit has some style. Good to see someone’s classing up the inn.”
Gothica grinned toothily.
“[Goth], is it? What kind of a class is [Goth]?”
Typhenous’ ears perked up. All his bribes and begging had availed him not. But Revi? Gothica considered the question.
“Is a class about style. Blackness. Being alone. Stick it up the bum of people in charge. Style.”
“Ooh. That would be a hit in Nerrhavia’s Fallen among a certain group of people. Do you think I could pick up the class? Just for fun.”
Gothica eyed Revi.
“Yah. You have clothing?”
They vanished as Erin began to tour the fields of Riverfarm. She heard lots of shouting behind her, and Master Helm walked off, groaning.
“Oh dead gods, it’s another pileup. I’ll never get my shipments…”
Erin almost wanted to turn back, but she didn’t know if traffic jams were that interesting. So they began to cross the bridge to the fields as she spoke to Halrac.
“I need to talk to Nanette. And the [Witches] about…witch-y stuff. But, um, do the Goblins seem happy here, Halrac?”
“As happy as I’ve seen them. It was worse at first, but when we said we knew Pebblesnatch, it helped.”
Erin looked at Halrac and bit her tongue. She glanced around, frowning, then nodded.
“That’s good. I was worried that—well. If they’re—if they’re happy—I guess that’s that. But I just—do you hear that?”
She stopped, midway across the bridge, and did a slow rotation. Halrac halted as well, frowning, and Briganda cautioned Cade not to peer out over the bridge, although there was a railing. Erin’s head craned about, and she spoke.
“I hear someone crying. I hear…I’ve been hearing it off and on for a while.”
Halrac had excellent ears, but he could hear nothing of the sort. Typhenous glanced at Erin sharply.
“I have heard nothing, Miss Solstice. Is it someone in danger?”
The [Witch] bit her lip.
“No. Nothing like that. It’s not pain…I think they’re just sad. He? It might be a he. But where…”
A raven, Mavika’s familiar, perched on a tree and watched Erin. The [Witches] of Riverfarm were interested in her, the girl who had been taught by a great coven yet had no hat or craft.
More than they were, and less. Yet she heard something, and so Erin turned her head to the forest and mountain beyond. To the Goblinlands, back to Riverfarm. She looked around and saw the raven and waved, then looked up to where a cloud, like a second unseen castle in the sky, floated above her. She frowned behind her and ahead.
And then she figured out where the old man was. Erin’s eyes went round.
She looked down at the bridge newly built below her feet. Or rather…what lay beneath it. The old man wept and ran across Riverfarm. He whispered to her as people took bits of his skin. Erin looked down and heard the river weeping. Her lips moved, and Halrac felt goosebumps ripple up his arms. A raven took wing, cawing as Erin whispered.
In this day and age, there was only one Elemental that had a name.
Khoteizetrough of Gaarh Marsh. And it was dead. Even Khoteizetrough had not been a true Earth Elemental of the Swamps. The body of that great protector had already perished, and the Khoteizetrough of the modern day had been more, well, Swamp Elemental than Earth, a decomposed being who was still so mighty it made Gaarh Marsh a tribe beyond tribes.
Yet the age of Elementals was bygone. Like Truestone, they had faded from the earth. But unlike Treants or Dryads, they were not an entirely dead race.
It was just that any version around in the world today was different from their true nature.
Consider Maviola. Or Ceria Springwalker, or even the Warmage Thresk. Each one was capable of summoning an elemental. But that was much like conjuring the idea of something rather than the genuine article.
They could create beings of fire to fight their opponents temporarily, but there was no soul there. No consciousness. Real Elementals did not ‘run out of time’, and they had their own magic.
Real elementals were the foundation of great [Shamans] and magics. You could strike a pact with them. They were akin to Plain’s Eye’s manufactured Daemon. But there was one more thing.
“You have to summon an Elemental. You can’t just, like, make them appear. Not the real ones.”
“But what is an Elemental, then? I’ve fought Earth Golems. What’s the difference?”
Erin bit her lip. Briganda was bouncing Cade on her knee as he played with the Box of Wonders. Erin was pacing back and forth in front of the riverbank, trying to explain what had her so excited.
“Think of it like this. Earth Golems are like…magical pieces of mud. Like how Snow Golems form. But they are the material. If you get rid of the magic mud, the Earth Golem dies, right?”
It was standard-practice to aim for a Golem’s Heart. Whether that was an artificial one or a natural one, like how Snow Golems had magical ice in their heads. Earth Golems had a ‘stomach’ of potent, smelly mud. Or sometimes a magical gemstone. They were like slimes, really.
However—Erin lifted a finger.
“Elementals aren’t that. They’re an idea. This guy’s a river. The way it works is that you have to bind his essence to a mortal vessel. Like how Khoteizetrough was the Elemental of the swamp; he was the swamp. Because it was so old and powerful it developed a personality.”
The Gold-rank adventurers exchanged a look. This seemed more like stories than reality.
“How do you beat one, then?”
“It’s hard. Air Elementals are all air. They’re like the top-level version of their kind. You can kill them like poor Khoteizetrough…but this old guy hasn’t been summoned. I don’t think even the other [Witches] could hear him. He wants someone to talk to him!”
She glanced at the river, and Revi, who’d come back with Gothica, frowned at Erin.
“How can you hear him, then? What makes you so special?”
Erin shrugged. She rubbed at her ear and winced.
“I had a good teacher. Anyone can learn to listen. Or see. It’s just a matter of perspective. But, uh, it’s like having a moment of inspiration or grace. You have to flip a switch, and then you can do it whenever, but it took me ages to figure it out. And I had the best teachers in ever.”
By now, she had an audience larger than even Griffon Hunt. Mavika perched on a branch, listening to Erin speak. She gave Erin an appraising look.
“That is more of a [Witch] than you were before. Even I heard this ‘old man’ not. But then, I am of the air and sky.”
Erin nodded rapidly.
“Yeah, you’re specialized, Mavika. It might actually be hardest for you to hear water even if you wanted to.”
Mavika dipped her head to Erin, although whether it was for Erin helping her to save face or simple acknowledgement, it was hard to tell. Yet Erin was glancing around.
“Darn! Where is Inkar? I just had an amazing idea. What if…what if I summoned this guy? Maybe he won’t want to, but I think he does if he’s talking to me. And then—”
“You cannot just take an elemental from Riverfarm! Isn’t that stealing, Erin?”
Revi was horrified, but Erin waved her hands.
“No, no, no! It wouldn’t be stealing!”
“Oh, good. For a second there, I thought you wanted to conjure an Elemental and bring it to the Gnoll Plains. Because Laken is not gonna like that.”
Revi sighed in relief. Erin hesitated.
“W-well, it’s not stealing because the Elemental would have his own will. I’d just ask if he wanted to protect a tribe. They love stuff like that, you know.”
Griffon Hunt exchanged worried glances. They were aware of their position as hired help for Riverfarm, and they had a pretty good idea of how Laken would treat them losing a magical being. On the other hand…Typhenous shot a quick [Message] to Nesor.
“It wouldn’t hurt to see if this Elemental exists either way, would it?”
He glanced around too-casually, and Halrac frowned, but Erin beamed at him.
“Yeah! It’ll take me a second to figure out how to do it, anyways. Mavika, do you know how to summon elementals? It wasn’t part of my training. I only know theory.”
The Crow Witch hesitated and shook her head.
“You know more than I of this part of deep craft. If you think it is wise, do what you wilt, and I will watch with the others.”
More [Witches] were learning from Erin. And lambs. The young woman gulped, but her eyes were aflame, and this, perhaps more than any moment, was truly what she had learned from the lands of the dead. So she began speaking out loud, explaining to her audience.
“Okay. Okay. If I recall right—summoning an Elemental is like any other spirit. There are two basic parts of a spirit staying in the world. The ritual can be simple or hard, and since he’s…here, that’s not as much of an issue. And he wants to come out. So we need to make a body for him and an anchor.”
“How’s that, then?”
Typhenous was scribbling frantically. Erin ticked the two off on her fingers.
“Body. Body is like—what he uses. A vessel like Khoteizetrough had. It can be small or big, and an Elemental grows over time as it puts more of itself in there. We need something suitably…water-like.”
“A bucket of water?”
“Special water, Revi! Almost like a slime’s body, maybe. The second thing it needs is an anchor. Some part of it that connects to what it is. A sapling or…well, a riverstone.”
“I could get that. It’s a cold day, but if you want someone to take a dip—I’m your woman! This sounds exciting!”
Briganda laughed and shucked off her outer layer of clothing. She put a toe in the river and shuddered.
“Oh, that’s cold! I’ll dive down and grab a stone?”
“Uh—yeah! Get one with a hole in it, if you can! A natural hole in the center.”
Briganda’s face fell. She stared down into the riverbed at hundreds of stones.
Then a chortling Cade ran up and pushed Briganda into the water. She fell in with a yelp and began bobbing in the fast-moving current, diving down and coming up with muddy stones.
Erin was trying to figure out the water bit. Mavika perched next to her.
“Perhaps only a bit of water will do for a small one? In the tales I know, they started small and grew without limit over time.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s just—a basic Elemental is sorta stupid. If we give him water, he’ll splash and destroy his body. So it needs to be slightly…gelatinous?”
“Hm. A thick water?”
“Ew, but yes.”
Mavika frowned at Erin, but then she turned her head.
“Perhaps Eloise could help. She is a [Witch] of tea, and she could mix an agent into some water. I have horse’s bone and marrow, and I know Agratha can make a jelly broth of beef.”
Erin clapped her hands in delight.
“What, like a tea Elemental? That’s hilarious! Yeah, let’s do that! All we need is a cauldron, a stone…”
And a great occasion for the magic. Erin felt it in the air, a humming in her bones. Her eyes lit up, and she beamed, and the other [Witches] felt it as she began to kneel by the riverbed and whispered to the water.
A prickle in their thumbs. A great act of witching this way comes. Even the girl sitting on the hill looked down as she felt Erin speaking to the river.
But the one [Witch] who heard the old man and ignored his pleas day by day raised her head and turned from supervising a new trebuchet being constructed in the engineering corps’ home.
“Oh no, that fool.”
She went striding back, away from Tessia, and tried to gauge how far she was from wherever it was happening. The [Engineers] had been given a site six miles away from Riverfarm proper. They had moved when people complained of the loud thwacking sound of trebuchets misfiring and the occasional projectiles launched in every direction.
Wiskeria had walked the distance. She ran about, cursing and calling for a horse, then just charged down the road. Of all the times not to have her mother’s boots! She hoped she’d make it in time.
She was halfway through setting up a cauldron and Erin was inspecting a stone with a bit of quartz running through it, a geode that had tumbled into the river long ago, perhaps, when she noticed Halrac’s look of reserve.
“This seems like a larger event than just summoning a slime or Water Golem, Erin.”
He glanced to the side, and Erin saw dozens of girls in hats sitting on the banks. Older [Witches] were arriving, bringing their apprentices. Most watched, standing or sitting, but Agratha had brought a picnic blanket and was offering a canteen of soup around.
Erin bit her lip. She saw Halrac glance at her and then at his team. Unfortunately, Halrac Everam didn’t have much support—Revi had entered her gothic-rebel phase, Typhenous was greedily watching the goings-on, and Briganda was busy drying herself, and she was a happy-go-lucky sort anyways. Cade was probably Halrac’s backup that this wasn’t a good idea, and that was just because the boy wanted to go to the bathroom.
“What? Oh, come on, Halrac. It’s just a little—Laken’s cool. Mm. Maybe he’s not cool.”
Halrac didn’t say anything. He just kept watching Erin. The [Innkeeper] blew out her cheeks.
She stared at the ground, then peered around. Erin seemed to demarcate part of the sky and grumbled.
“It’s all his. Land, people, air—who just claims everything? Isn’t that arrogant? Whatddya think about this [Emperor], Halrac? Is he arrogant or a jerk or…?”
The [Marksman] shifted slightly and lowered his voice.
“Maybe. He’s certainly self-assured.”
“…But he’s also an [Emperor]. Tens of thousands of people look up to him. He is far more restrained than some. I’ve met Gold-rank adventurers with more grating egos. I think you could name at least one.”
“Todi? Yeah. I…”
Erin looked down at the spot of the ritual and then up as a few [Witches] brought over some gelatin and materials. She stared at the sky and groaned.
“…Damnit. I’ve got to do this.”
Glumly, Erin got up and turned. She walked towards Riverfarm, but as it turned out, Laken was already heading her way. He had his entourage, and he clearly knew something was going on.
“Ah, Erin. Is something…eventful taking place? Something suitably witchy?”
The worst part was that he even sounded polite, like he was sure it was okay, but he was just coming to inquire.
Erin mumbled and scuffed at the ground with one foot. She glanced back at Halrac and then looked at Laken.
“I, uh—I’m doing something with your river, Laken. I’m trying to summon the spirit of a Water Elemental.”
The strangled voice came from Nesor, the nervous [Mage] in the back. He was the only person who could appreciate that statement. Laken’s brows rose.
Erin nodded glumly.
“But I realized I have to ask you. Because it’s your land and sort of your river. Also, I was hoping he’d come with me. I don’t think an elemental listens to an [Emperor], but he’s been crying since I got here. Anyways. Can I summon an Elemental? It’ll only take like ten minutes to try. I’ll probably fail, anyways.”
As requests went, it was terrible. But that was because Erin really didn’t want to ask. She felt like she knew the answer already, and she was about to sulk off when the [Emperor] replied.
Erin’s bowed head came up suspiciously.
Laken raised his brows.
“You want to summon an elemental of a river? As long as you think it’s safe and my subjects can stay back, absolutely, try. In what scenario would I not want to meet one?”
“Maybe a blood elemental or something like that. Uh—wow! Thanks, Laken! You’re cooler than I thought! I mean…that’s exactly what I meant.”
Erin gave him a thumbs-up, and the [Emperor] hesitated. He strolled after Erin as she ran back to Halrac, shouting.
“Halrac! I got permission! Let’s do this thing!”
“Was that a good idea, Rie? Thoughts?”
Laken whispered to the others. He felt rather like the ‘cool principal’ who okayed the students skateboarding down the hallways. And he had never even thought of himself as a principal. In some generic American school. With lots of lockers, allegedly, for shoving people into. That was how he pictured it.
“It seems incredible she could do that off-handed. From Nesor’s babbling, it seems impossible, Your Majesty. But it would be a useful lesson to learn even if it fails. Whether it is dangerous? I remind you of our Solstice party.”
Laken hesitated. It did seem impossible that the cheerful young woman could do that. But then…her aura was only middling, weaker than Rie’s had been when they first met. Perhaps because this wasn’t her inn?
Yet the stories about her—Laken murmured to Prost.
“Maybe move Riverfarm’s people back if they want to watch. The [Witches] are all over the riverbank.”
He decided to watch at a remove as Griffon Hunt, a few older [Witches], and Erin fussed around the riverbank. Erin didn’t seem to need much time for a ‘first try’. Laken told himself he wasn’t going to find the proverbial high-schooler with a broken neck in five minutes. There was no way she was as bad as Ryoka, right?
And when he thought that, the [Emperor] got really worried.
For a grand meeting, it was like…preparing for a guest. If you did it right, for someone like Khoteizetrough, or who he would be, you needed to honor them in a suitable way.
Set the table and prepare a feast. Sweep the floor, set a crackling fire ablaze. Clean the guest room, replace the sheets, and throw open the windows. Welcome them, these distant guests, with open arms and hope they would choose to live with you awhile. Some might stay and put their lives with yours or stay with your children’s children. Great protectors, beings of magic and wisdom.
Erin had no banquet adorned for this old man. She barely had a can of soup, and she was improvising a can opener with a stick and two rocks. Her ‘guest room’ was a pallet of straw, and she knew it.
Yet she was still inviting him. Not just because she wanted to meet him or desired his power, but because he was crying.
Weeping and begging to be let in. She had never heard of someone doing that. He knew she was there, and he wanted to meet her as much as she did him. So, though it was poor, Erin Solstice mixed up tea and gelatin powder and water and grimaced at the mess in the cauldrons. She lifted the ladle, and someone actually tried to taste it.
Agratha was shocked, but Oliyaya cackled.
“It tastes as foul as tea and riverwater and mud might. But it’s closer to jelly than naught. Add some spit in for substance?”
“I think not. Although this is, ah, improvised? Will this do?”
The [Witches] turned to Erin. She eyed the mess and then the stone with the geode in it. Slowly, she lowered the stone into the cauldron of vaguely-green jelly.
“It’s terrible. If it was anyone else, I’d expect them to be really upset. But I can hear…he’s practically reaching for the cauldron. Can you hear him?”
She turned expectantly, and Mavika shook her head. She was as deaf to the voice of water as most birds. If she had been the [Witch of Penguins]…maybe that kind of witch-bird would have heard.
However, more than one [Witch] was craning their necks and peering into the river. It was lapping hard at the banks, now. Interestingly, against the natural laws of physics, the water seemed to surge against the side of the river Erin was on.
“I can hear something.”
Oliyaya whispered, and Eloise adjusted her hat, eying the river.
“Yes. He wants to meet us. This is uncanny. I have walked the Vail Forest and listened long. I have some gift with herbs and water myself, but no voice was even half as loud. I wonder why.”
Hedag stood furthest back. Her eyes were locked on the river, and she had not joined the ritual. Erin turned to her.
“Um, Witch Hedag? Is something wrong?”
“I do not know. But best summon him, eh, Witch Erin? If he is this loud, better to swing clean than stop halfway.”
So Erin had Halrac and Briganda help carry the cauldron to the edge of the river, where the water lapped around the cauldron. Cade sucked his thumb as Gothica copied him, and Riverfarm’s folk stood far back. Then the adventurers took a step back, and it was Erin alone.
The [Witch of Second Chances] felt uncertain with so many eyes upon her. She felt—off. This was no proper invitation, no rich meal. Yet the guest was pounding at the door and weeping.
How long had he waited? Her heart went out to him. He sounded so old. He had lain here, sleeping, as ages passed. Waking and calling out and weeping in silence.
It was the [Witches] who had first woken him up. The great coven coming across this land. No, the [Emperor] himself. But the only ones to hear him had ignored his voice. Now—
Erin Solstice had no drawn ritual. No sacrifice of magic. She waded into the banks of the river and felt the current pulling at her shoes. She shivered, for it was a strong river and pulled her, but called out.
“Hello? It’s me. I can hear you. I have nothing to offer you, but will you meet with me?”
The [Witches] watched. Riverfarm’s folk eyed the [Innkeeper] standing in the water, as silly and odd as she’d come. A [Princess] hurried forth, exasperated, as a little Gnoll girl stopped racing about with her new friends and halted.
Mrsha, the [Druid], felt Erin reaching down. She scampered forwards and joined the crowd, observing as Erin tried to make contact.
Now, how did it go? It was just a matter of perspective. If you set the table right, if they were willing to listen and you had a place for them to stay—you had to get their attention.
You had to open the door and see them. Erin bent over the river, looking down into the waters. But it was not the riverbed she was trying to see. She looked down, and down, until her eyes began to play tricks on her.
Like anything, if you stared at it too long, if you focused on a word, the less sense it made. But Erin kept staring, blinking when she needed to, but holding her gaze in one spot. Until the little tricks her mind played began…morphing together. Until the murmurs of people behind her were overtaken by the rushing of waters. The coldness in her feet spread—and then numbed her flesh—
And then Erin fell. Not physically, but fell into a world of rushing blue. Where the muddy banks became the floor of a world where water was everything. She almost gasped, almost jerked back, but held herself as she fell deeper.
“There you are.”
It was a vast world of water. An ocean—but an ocean of so many parts. If the water had been colored, Erin thought she would have seen a hundred myriad streams, each unique, blending and mixing and warring and joining together.
The will of water. Perhaps the ocean itself had a will. Perhaps the oceans could be elementals, like ponds and lakes and rivers.
But now—she looked around as she sank, following this stream, and Erin’s heart clenched. Because this ocean was still.
The water was dead. The land was cold where it met this ocean in the distance, and the last glorious singers had fled this continent, into the sea. Long ago, and so he wept.
An old man. He looked nothing like a person as Erin sank down. If he had hair, if she had to make sense of that face that gazed upwards and the tears that fell, his hair was like old water, twisting around a face made of a ripple, a passing reflection of the things that passed above him.
Yet she knew he was old. Old and lonely. He wept because someone had died. No—two someones. The last of a forest and a great protector.
Salty tears ran from Erin’s eyes, mixing with the sea around her. She reached down—the water was all around her, in her lungs, but she whispered without breath.
“Hello. Do you want to come with me?”
The old man looked up at her and raised his head where he sat, alone. She saw that head of currents, a face made of waters, rise, and then swam upwards. Reaching for her, looking up at her pitiful offering. But a smile of delight spread across his face, and he shot up, faster and faster, and Erin gulped as she realized how large he was. Even if he wasn’t as old or powerful, he was a river. He carried her up in his wake, and she—
Erin had gone completely still. The [Witches] were not fooled, but Riverfarm’s folk were greatly perplexed by what they saw. They had seen her call out once, then just stand there as her trousers were soaked by the lapping waters. There was something off about the river, and the longer they watched, the more the hair prickled down their necks and a shiver ran up their spines.
Yet she didn’t do anything interesting. Not at first. She gazed down, immobile, as the cauldron slowly threatened to tip over and the water’s lashing grew stronger.
Then…the river turned as flat as glass. It still ran, but gasps of shock and awe rose and then fell to silence as the rushing waters stopped pushing. Erin Solstice’s lips moved, but no words came out. She reached down as Wiskeria reached the edge of Riverfarm, clutching at a stitch in her side.
Too late. She saw Erin bending down. She saw the old man rising, and Wiskeria ran, lungs bursting with pain.
What they all saw, [Witches], people, was Erin Solstice completing the simple gesture. She reached down with one hand into the water and grabbed something there. Someone else’s hand. Erin began to pull up—but the old man was rising.
The river convulsed, and a geyser of water blew upwards. A stream of liquid, enough to douse a house twice over in a single jet. It could have hammered Erin flat in a moment—the [Witches] stepped back warily. Briganda shielded Cade, but the jet of water was a perfect arc, a parabola which had only one target.
The cauldron. Down the water came, and it struck the little iron cauldron so hard that it cracked and burst apart in a second. The metal tore as if someone had taken an equivalent of paper and ripped it asunder.
Yet the water and metal didn’t spray everywhere. The river water poured down as Erin staggered back, eyes wide with shock and then delight. The jet of water surged down and down, and surely the cauldron could not have held it all. But like a bag of holding, it filled without end. Then—something rocked within the metal prison. It rotated awkwardly and then spilled out onto the muddy grass of the riverbank. Amidst the reeds and a frog hopping around wondering what the hell had happened, a being poured out of the cauldron.
“Rie. What do you see?”
Laken Godart stood, uncertain amongst all the people gasping and pointing. For he saw nothing, obviously, but his senses as an [Emperor] told him something else. His palms were sweaty.
For it felt as though the river had suddenly left the riverbed, and a portion of it, a representative, was rolling about less than a hundred feet from him. A mass of water, a force of nature grounded in some object.
He didn’t like it. He wished Durene were here, yet it was also inspiring. Laken had often wondered what it was like to stand before a waterfall and see it, rather than hear the all-encompassing roar, and feel the spray upon his face of so much water falling. This—this was his experience.
Lady Rie took a moment to swallow. When she replied, her voice was slightly unsteady, and he thought she too was reconsidering all the stories she’d heard about Erin. But what she said wasn’t what he expected.
“It’s…as though I’m seeing a wave breaking upon the land, Your Majesty. It never runs out. A wave…or a hand?”
“A hand? A wave?”
“A hand of water? No, now it’s become a—a cube of water! It’s bobbing, like a dewdrop, now a whirlpool—”
“Not a slime?”
The [Emperor] was confused. From everything he’d heard, he expected it to be like a tea-slime thing. Some round orb of water. But Rie was shaking her head, knowing he could sense it.
“Not at all. It has a greenish tinge, but it moves too fast for anyone to call it a slime. It has—color.”
“Green in the body, mud—almost like eyes. But white as well, streaks of it. Prost, what would you call water that does that?”
The [Steward] broke out of his fascinated observation and spoke.
“Whitewater, Rie, Your Majesty. Rippling whitewater as if I was a lad and rafting down this very river among the rapids.”
Laken Godart exhaled. He sensed the river whirling around Erin, who was raising her hands and calling out to it. But it flowed so fast past her—surging towards the [Witches] watching, whirling around.
Like a dog, perhaps. One of Gralton’s otter-dogs, exploring a new home. Yet there was too much sentience there. Laken felt the water ripple backwards towards the [Innkeeper] and heard a shout of alarm.
That was Lyonette. The Water Elemental engulfed Erin up to her neck and lifted her up. Erin was laughing, trying to shout.
“It’s cold! Wait, wait! You’re so happy! Hello!”
She was laughing as Laken’s head turned, and he sensed Wiskeria running through the fields. He heard her a few seconds later, a shouting, distant voice amidst it all. Then Laken’s heart sank. For what Wiskeria said was this:
“Don’t do it! Don’t get near him! He’s a bastard! He’s an Elemental. He’s a river, and he understands nothing about what we call right and wrong!”
The [Emperor]’s head swung back just as Erin’s laughter turned into a note of alarm. Then the Elemental of the River swallowed her head, and she began to drown.
He was so happy. He really had been lonely, and now he whirled around, changing forms, rejoicing in being able to leave his pre-set path. There was no malice in him.
Not even when he engulfed her head. Erin inhaled water and began drowning on dry land as the Water Elemental seized her up.
Stop! Stop, stop, stopstopstop—
Her instant panic confused the elemental. It was young, now, part river, part the form she had given it. Far weaker than a river in all its majesty, but able to grow. It cast around, looking for a foe. Then it abandoned Erin as she tried to tell it to let her go.
The [Innkeeper] landed, spewing out water, and it felt like a bucket’s worth, before she coughed and inhaled. She looked up as the Water Elemental whirled around her.
What had gone wrong? It didn’t know why Erin was suffering—but it was concerned for her. Yet suddenly, Erin was no longer as confident as she had been a moment ago. She coughed as Halrac ran over. And he had his invisible bow drawn.
“No, he’s still friendly to me. I—”
Erin was hacking out more water, coughing, as the Water Elemental began to flow around. Now, Witch Agratha was backing up in alarm, and Eloise and Mavika were whispering quickly. They sensed it too.
An infinite curiosity, a rejoicing to be alive! And a complete disregard and understanding of what this ‘land’ was about. The Water Elemental cast left, cast right. Then Erin realized what Wiskeria had known from the start.
For the river and the Water Elemental surged around, past the nervous mortals, and it recognized something. Oh! I know this! The elemental reached out, and with all the strength of thousands of pounds of water, as quick as a tidal wave, and as cheerfully as could be—
It plucked Cade out from behind Briganda and tossed him into the center of the river. The boy’s eyes went wide as he flew up, and Briganda was knocked sprawling. He flew and was almost smiling, his face wide with shock and alarm. Then the water reached up and swallowed him. Then it began dragging him down into the deeps.
Briganda was on her feet in a second, screaming. She ran towards the riverbank, and the boy was struggling as the water dragged him down, down to the riverbed. The Water Elemental reached out cheerfully, and a little Gnoll girl ran, screaming.
I’ve done this before. Erin was frozen in shock and horror. She got a flash from the river. It recognized people. People and children. Some stole parts of it, but others swam about. And when it rained, or sometimes, they sank low and never came back out.
It was trying to drown Cade. The Water Elemental reached for Mrsha, inviting the [Druid] to join it forever, and Mrsha ran, screaming, but it flowed like a racing current—until Halrac’s arrow blew the top half of it into a gout of steam.
“Get Cade! Erin, stop it!”
The [Marksman] reached for a second arrow as Briganda dove into the waters. Erin shouted, running at the water elemental as it pivoted wildly, confused.
That hurt. It had no pain receptors, but its body was it. The elemental cast around, spotted its attacker, and launched a ball of water at Halrac.
He tried to dodge, but they were too close. So what hit him was a ball of water. Just water…heavy and fast, like a catapult throwing a stone. It knocked him flat, and Erin was shouting at it.
“Stop, stop! Let him go!”
She pointed at the water, and the river noticed Briganda trying to free the boy. So it lifted Cade up and tossed her out of the water. Now, the boy was hovering in the air, and the river was marveling that it could do this.
It had magic. And a body. And this was its heart. Cade was struggling fainter now. Erin looked at the water elemental, gathering more of itself back.
“Stop this. Stop this!”
It turned to her, wondering why she was so upset. The [Innkeeper] was blazing, blazing with fury and fear.
“Put him down.”
The river hesitated. What if I don’t want to? It waved the dying boy around, and then Erin punched it.
[Minotaur Punch]. Her fist splattered part of its ‘face’ and then sank into the water. Curiously, the river felt at her hand. Then it ignored her.
Everyone was trying to get to Cade, now, but most of the people were just standing at the river’s edge, looking at the mass of water holding the boy. It was tossing anyone trying to leap into it out, and Typhenous was trying to ‘cut’ the water holding Cade up. But he might as well have been trying to cut sand. Even if he severed part of the river, it was water. There was a seemingly endless amount of it.
Then the old [Mage] tried to block the river with a [Forcewall]. His spell lasted a tenth of a second, and the water rippled. The river did not like that. Typhenous was already reeling when another jet of water struck him and sent him sprawling.
The Water Elemental was getting confused by the sudden animosity it was feeling from its savior. She was making demands of it, and it didn’t like them. The boy was almost part of it, now. It lifted him higher—and then Wiskeria was there.
“River, let go and run elsewhere or I’ll break your heart! Leave be and hold fast or this moment will be your last!”
She ran past Erin and plunged both hands into the Water Elemental’s body. It jerked—but it hadn’t learned to hide its heart. She had hold of the geode riverstone in her hands, and she was pulling it. The Water Elemental heaved as Erin looked at Wiskeria—then it swatted them both.
Erin landed on her back, dazed, head ringing, and got up amidst the shouting. Wiskeria staggered up next to her, cursing and spitting blood.
“You damned thing. We have to kill its body!”
Erin gasped. She looked at the elemental, and Wiskeria seized her arm.
“It won’t kill the river! They’re not separate yet. Just break that damn stone!”
The [Innkeeper] whirled for the boy. He was about to drown! Then she saw a [Princess] lift a finger. Lyonette du Marquin looked around at the [Emperor] shouting for his soldiers and at the boy, reaching for his mother helplessly trying to swim up at him.
Lyonette shouted one thing, in desperation and certainty.
A screaming blur launched itself out of the shadows of a house. Erin didn’t even see the Drake she was moving so fast. The Named Adventurer leapt, blades drawn, and raced across the ground. The river barely noticed her, one individual amongst all the others. But then Shriekblade leapt and hit the body of water holding Cade.
A part of the river exploded. The mass of water jerked, and the Water Elemental convulsed in fright and outrage. It cast around, and Tessa landed in a roll, the boy in her arms. She stared at him, held him upside down, and he began puking out water. Then she saw Briganda charging at her and handed him to his mother. Tessa looked up and cartwheeled out of the way of a blast of water.
Erin strode over the muddy ground with Wiskeria. She pointed at the Water Elemental and shouted at it.
“Stop attacking people! Listen to me!”
“Back down, old man. Quiet, river, and listen to her voice!”
Wiskeria shouted, but the river never stopped moving. And it was getting pissed. It launched a blob of water at the [Marksman] who shot an arrow into it that burned and sizzled and turned it to steam.
Who said it? Erin? Wiskeria? They caught sight of each other, standing side-by-side, and both realized what they had to do. Erin clenched her fist, but she was wet, and she had no flame for this. Nor the regret and anger, not yet.
Wiskeria looked at Erin and saw her honest mistake, and she drew her wand. She aimed her wand at the Water Elemental’s heart.
The Tier 2 spell barely got in a foot before it sank into the water, and the Water Elemental was growing by the second. Wiskeria checked her wand; she was no battle-caster. Typhenous threw a comet into the Water Elemental, and it shielded its core, swiveling towards him.
“He’s right next to his body. We have to cut him from his vessel! By craft or with mortal blade!”
Wiskeria shouted in Erin’s ear. Both [Witches] whirled, and Erin stared at her fist, felt the pan, kitchen knife, and jar of acid—none of which were good against a mass of water.
They needed something more. So both [Witches] reached for their craft. Erin tried to conjure a spell, anything—and realized she didn’t even know what her craft was. She had no hat.
And Wiskeria’s hat was empty. The [Witch of Law] clutched at her hat and cursed. Then, the other [Witches] nodded to each other. Erin saw someone tip her hat up, and Mavika’s voice crowed in her ears, despite the shouting and sounds.
“A [Witch] without a craft is a [Mage] without a single spell.”
She raised her hand, and a howling gale blew into the Water Elemental, a vortex of wind that sent water raining up and down. The river turned, outraged and alarmed, and a second [Witch] drew something as it launched a blast of water to pound Mavika’s bones into dust.
“A [Witch] with no hat is a flame with no fuel.”
Agratha unfolded the parasol and held it like a [Pikeman] before a charge. A torrent of water struck it and filled the air with mist and thunder, but the light fabric didn’t so much as waver. Then the last [Witch] raised her head. Hedag focused on Cade, choking and clinging to his mother, and she raised her axe and strode across the ground.
“A [Witch] is a [Witch], but you two have much to learn.”
The Water Elemental recoiled as the Hedag brought up that rusted headsman’s axe. She swung it down, through a grasping hand. Through the body of water.
Through the river stone. Erin and Wiskeria heard the old man shriek and try to hold on, but his connection was gone and he was too newly-formed. The river slumped back and began to run according to nature once more. The gelatinous body quivered—then sagged and oozed amidst the mud and flowed into the waters.
It was done. Erin looked around as Laken came striding forwards, as Briganda turned with a mother’s wrath. She looked at Wiskeria, and the other [Witch] caught her eyes.
They looked at each other in silence, and Erin hung her head. Wiskeria just breathed and spoke into that moment.
“I hate it when they try to teach us a lesson.”
It had been a long time since Wiskeria felt something like this. She felt things, of course.
She felt the water on her robes, the sodden, unpleasant feeling of it clinging to her skin. That wasn’t fun, nor the adrenaline in her veins or fear that had been in her heart.
A [Witch] felt emotions. She felt emotions. It wasn’t as if her mother had taken them away. When she was stabbed, she screamed. When she stubbed a toe, she cursed and wept. She was hardly immortal or even tough.
It was just that these were natural things, and sometimes she could let them pass over her or think amidst blinding agony if she had to. But that was just a trick of concentration; any [Warrior] could do that.
Strong feelings, though, especially the good ones, were rare. She had once been a girl, and her mother had shown her every wonder and horror; it had made her numb until her first friend taught her how to be close to a normal person. However, even now, Wiskeria remembered her great emotions.
Her betrayal when Odveig revealed herself as Sacra. Her rage against her mother’s deeds. Her sense of righteousness when she found her craft. Her sadness for Nanette.
Now, she savored a different kind of feeling. Which was sympathy for Erin Solstice.
The young woman sat there, a blanket on her shoulders, staring at the fire in her guest-house. Wiskeria had lit it for her. Erin didn’t seem keen on moving.
She still had a bruise, a bad one, from where Briganda had punched her. Which was a fair and honest blow, and there hadn’t been two or four. No one was dead, but there was a lot of cleaning up to do. The old man was howling his fury, and Riverfarm’s folk were understandably upset by what they’d seen.
However, Wiskeria was slightly peeved. Indignant, and she ventured some words into the silence.
“They knew it would probably go bad. They let you summon the Water Elemental and make that mistake. I hate it when they do that.”
Erin hadn’t stirred until now, but her head began to rise. Her voice croaked.
“They knew he’d…?”
Wiskeria sensed her rising outrage and corrected herself.
“They probably didn’t know he’d try to kill Cade. Hedag would have stopped you herself. But…let’s say they let it happen. Say, rather, they allowed you to make a mistake because they thought they could control it if they were there. Which was true. And they probably wanted to learn how to do what you did. Many purposes to a deed. That’s witchcraft.”
“How could they let me do that?”
Erin’s voice was hushed, angry, and hurt. Wiskeria smiled.
“Because you came to them without a hat and no craft but told them you were the student of the greatest coven, and it made them mad. [Witches] can be petty. They don’t like me much, either, because I’m a [Witch of Law] and Belavierr’s daughter and I won’t tell them any secrets. Some of them don’t care, but they push us to be what they think is best. That’s a [Witch]-y thing to do.”
“That’s outrageous. I n—I d—I don’t appreciate people doing it to me.”
Erin was at least conscientious enough not to be hypocritical. Then she looked at Wiskeria again.
“I didn’t mean to be rude. Well—sorta. I just didn’t want to go in with thees and thous, you know?”
The other [Witch] considered this and shrugged.
“You should have. Mavika especially wants that.”
“But why? Why can’t I be casual?”
For answer, Wiskeria nodded out the window at the angry river.
“Because witchcraft has rules. It’s like…wiping your feet at the door. It’s courtesy, and sometimes, the rules about where to walk or how to talk save your life. Didn’t the ghosts teach you that?”
She said it so matter-of-factly, as if she believed Erin’s stories implicitly. Even the people who knew Erin best didn’t quite…believe. They tried, but Wiskeria just tilted her head, and Erin hesitated.
“I—they taught me how to be a [Witch]. How to be one, not secrets. Not like the other ghosts.”
“Oh, how to be one. Then they probably expected you to make a bunch of mistakes. My mother was the other way. She taught me all the secrets and none of how to be. A [Witch] is a [Witch]. She coined that expression, you know.”
“Did she? Your mother’s really Belavierr? The Stitch Witch? The one that…?”
“Murdered Califor? Nearly killed that girl, Mrsha? Slaughtered Gnolls at the Meeting of Tribes? The Threadbreaker of Stitchfolk? The Witch of Webs, the Immortal Spider? The woman who’s stolen lives and sewn faces onto a thousand puppets and victims? Yes.”
Wiskeria’s face never changed. Erin’s mouth opened, and she gave Wiskeria much the same look others gave her.
“You’re so casual about it.”
“I’ve been used to it all my days. It was stranger for me to find out other people had a mother and father, or that they wept when they bled. I’m aware I’m not—normal. But please don’t tell anyone. I’ve done a good job of late, and I think they think I’m somewhat normal. For a [Witch].”
A surprisingly anxious look crossed her face, and Erin’s odd stare intensified. She had never met someone who wanted to be normal. Except maybe Ishkr.
“I promise. You do a good job. I barely noticed you until after I talked to Nanette. Oh no, she’ll never want to come with me now. I’ve screwed things up. Briganda hates me, and I messed up Laken’s village and…”
“And the Witches are going to try to apprentice you off, now. Just you wait.”
Wiskeria patted Erin on the head. When the [Innkeeper] gave her a strange look, Wiskeria tried the shoulder and then the back. Erin laughed.
“You’re like Bird.”
“Who? Do you mean a bird, in general, or is that a name?”
“A name. Don’t worry! You pat me on the shoulder, I think. Back is if I’m crying.”
“Really? When do I pat you on the head? If you’re a child?”
“Yeah—or if we were, like, super close or something. Or if you want to treat me like a kid. Um. You can stop patting me, now.”
Wiskeria stopped. Erin looked at her, and Wiskeria felt a shiver of delight. Because if Erin had failed with the old man, once she saw Wiskeria, the [Witch of Law] understood how an [Innkeeper] could be a [Witch].
“You have good eyes for people. No wonder Califor made you her apprentice. She had good eyes, too.”
Erin ducked her head.
“I dunno, I think I was the only one she got. Um. Wiskeria, right? What did you mean when you said they’d make me their apprentice? That’s not the plan, at all.”
“I know, but that’s what you think. What they think is that now you’ve been humbled, they can get one of them to teach you. And learn from you. A good [Witch] learns from their apprentice. How likely is that?”
Erin made a face, and Wiskeria studied it.
“Is that a no?”
“No! I don’t want to—I like them, sort of, but I don’t think I want to be an apprentice. How many good ones are there?”
“Er, the ones who you saw? Eloise, Hedag, Mavika, Oliyaya, Agratha. There are a few others, but those are the ones who were here the longest.”
Erin’s expression of sucking sour lemons intensified.
“I don’t want any of them to teach me. Eloise is the coolest of the lot, but she’s like Lyonette. Is Oliyaya the one with the…cackle?”
“Mhm. Agratha is the one who tries to make people smile even if they don’t want to.”
“Tries to…oh! That’s a wonderful description! I don’t want any of them to teach me, thanks. No sir. No way.”
Erin shook her head adamantly, and Wiskeria nodded.
“I suppose, then, that you’ll have to teach yourself. Just don’t try to summon anyone else you meet. Not without doing your research.”
The [Innkeeper]’s face fell. She hung her head.
“He was so sad. I thought I was doing a good deed. It was a small vessel.”
Wiskeria patted Erin’s knee and got a nod of approval. She explained, as patiently as she could. It was amazing Erin didn’t see it.
“I know he was sad, but he didn’t understand why drowning children was bad. Even my mother knows right and wrong, but he’s water. He’s killed more children over his life than most monsters who walk on two legs. He weeps—but most spirits lie, even if it’s also to themselves. You have to do your research, first. Be very sure before you act. When I heard him weeping, I checked with some of the locals, and they told me how he overflows his banks and how many he’s killed. If it was a Dryad? She might be nice to that [Druid] girl, Mrsha, but she’d strangle Cade in a heartbeat for plucking a single flower.”
Erin shuddered. Then she looked sideways at Wiskeria.
“How d’you know all that? Did Belavierr teach you?”
Wiskeria nodded absently.
“Some. The rest is just stories. Reading books and so on. I met countless [Witches] of Terandria, and I’ve met a lot of the ones in Izril. Not that I’m an expert. As you can see, my hat is empty. I am a [Witch] with no great deeds, but that’s fine. It annoys my mother, and there’s nothing grand about me. I was simply Belavierr’s daughter. If I went around summoning elementals, it would be so boring of me, wouldn’t it?”
Wiskeria stopped talking abruptly and almost jumped. Erin had sucked the words out of her like a sponge did water! She turned, abashed, but Erin had a look of delight and chagrin on her face. The [Innkeeper] vibrated and then almost burst out.
“You’re fascinating! You’re nothing like what I thought you’d be—if I even knew Belavierr had a daughter! Wiskeria, I like you!”
“Really? I hated you from the moment I saw you.”
Her brows were faintly blue now the dye had washed out a bit. Erin’s face fell.
“Wh—you did? Why?”
“Because you remind me of my mother. She would have summoned that old man in a heartbeat if she thought he was worth it. Even if he drowned everyone in Riverfarm. She never asks whether something is right or wrong, or even smart. She just does it. You’re all grand deeds like the people in your company. You do what you think you have to, even if you break every rule. Am I wrong?”
The [Innkeeper] looked terribly offended by the comparison and then tentatively outraged.
“I don’t always do that. It’s just how things shake up. You can’t always follow the rules. You don’t get anything done that way.”
“Spoken like Belavierr.”
“Hey! Take that back. I’ve never met her, but every story I’ve heard makes her super bad!”
Wiskeria nodded reasonably.
“She’s worse than the stories. And you are like her. I can see the connection, and my words are fair. I swear it, upon my hat and hair.”
She added a bit of magic, a bit of solemness so Erin could see she was serious. But that only outraged Erin more.
“Take it back! Take it back! I’ll—”
She began to poke Wiskeria and then punch her gently. In response, Wiskeria raised a fist.
“No, no punching!”
Erin saw the future in an instant and put up her hands. She spoke quickly as Wiskeria lowered her fist.
“You don’t punch people when they play-fight! Important lesson, especially with kids!”
Wiskeria smiled politely.
“I know. But I wanted you to stop.”
Erin gave her a bug-eyed look, and then she burst out laughing. It turned into something like a sob or a moan, and she hugged the towel around her tighter and edged closer to her fire.
“This sucks. I’ve fallen into my old ways. I should have listened. I should have been polite, but it’s hard. I should have a stupid…hat. But I don’t like being bullied, and I don’t wanna apprentice myself to them.”
“Mm. And the old man’s gotten a taste for power. He’ll be back.”
Erin gave Wiskeria such a woebegone look that Wiskeria felt more sympathy for her. She patted Erin on the head, and the [Innkeeper] sniffled into her towel.
“What’s so bad about being a [Witch of Law], Wiskeria? You sound like you’re not a proper witch. Are you happy, working with Laken? What happened between you and your mother?”
That was a long story, so Wiskeria told some of it to Erin. But as for the rest—she shrugged.
“I like Laken. He’s definitely fated, like you and Inkar. Or if not fated, something’s on his side. He’s an [Emperor] in Izril. He doesn’t fit. I like Riverfarm because it’s no old power like the Five Families. I like it because it welcomes me, as odd as I am. I’m fine with being a poor [Witch]. As I said, it would be too easy to become a grand, bland one.”
Erin gave Wiskeria the side-eye, and then a smile spread across her face.
“You know what, Wiskeria? I just had a brilliant idea. I don’t really want to have a teacher, but while I’m here—you should teach me!”
Wiskeria blinked. She had not an ounce of power under her hat, but Erin nodded excitedly.
“Yes! You’ve seen how my style of witchcraft goes bad. You know more than most witches, and you’re nice, unlike the others. Teach me witchcraft for a bit? Please? And help me get to Nanette.”
Thoughtfully, Wiskeria took off her hat and studied it. She glanced at Erin and saw the [Innkeeper]’s pleading expression.
“You and I are not alike at all. I think our crafts might end up opposed. I don’t like you that much, and you seem like you’d be a poor student. Are you sure?”
Erin sucked in her breath.
“You could, uh, use more tact.”
“Again, I learned tact, but I don’t need to employ it. We’re [Witches]. If you want me to teach you a bit, I will. But only if you learn.”
The [Innkeeper] chewed on her lip, but then she nodded slowly.
“I have to. I must. Even if the other [Witches] are right about that, though—I am not like them. I am an [Innkeeper] and a [Witch], and I’ll be a weird one no matter what happens. I want to choose my teacher, so I choose you, Wiskeria!”
She laughed and smiled, and Wiskeria considered the offer. She looked up at the ceiling, tried to divine the future with commonsense and foresight, and then thought of her own regrets and her mother’s lessons. At last, she nodded.
“Very well. In that case, I will teach you as long as you stay. But you’ll follow my orders and do as I say. No arguments. Questions, but you have to try to learn, agreed?”
“Agreed! What’s my first step?”
Erin shot up as if she had gotten her second wind. Wiskeria thoughtfully looked out the window.
“To begin with, we’ll go back and apologize to Briganda fully once more. Then you and I will help repair the bridge or clean up. After that, we’ll tell Laken to watch the old man and tell the [Witches] I’m teaching you and that you’ll enter the hat competition. Then, I have to walk back to Tessia’s, so we’ll do that and talk.”
Erin’s face fell. She raised a hand, and Wiskeria stared at it until Erin spoke.
“This isn’t an objection! But, uh, that all doesn’t sound very witchy.”
And to that, Wiskeria sighed and put her hat on her head.
“Your first lesson, Erin, is that a [Witch] is always a [Witch]. Once you see the magic in everything, you can do something properly. Let’s go.”
She stood up, and Erin trailed after Wiskeria, wondering if this would be fun or a good idea, but feeling better because she’d found a teacher even more unique than she was. And, well, Wiskeria walked with a curious feeling. It was no pricking in her thumbs, just the odd sensation of responsibility, of trying to teach a younger Wiskeria how not to be quite so badly her.
“So it seems Erin Solstice is going to be staying here a while longer. Well…as first day events go, no one is dead. I cannot quite believe that is where we are setting the bar, but at least we have that.”
Laken Godart swilled some liquid around in a cup and felt it moving. It was fairly odorless, and so he indulged himself in sensation before he took a sip and felt the sting. He coughed.
“Damn me. This is fiery. Do Drakes really enjoy this?”
He heard a surprised laugh, and then the other person sitting in one of the grand chairs next to the fire in Laken’s mansion-home in Riverfarm spoke.
“All the time. Pain is how they enjoy anything. How do you know our language?”
Numbtongue saw the [Emperor]’s face wrinkle up. Laken spoke after a few seconds.
“I got something like ‘pain’, and I’m sure there was a question in that. What did you ask?”
“How do you know our language?”
The Hobgoblin sat with Laken Godart late at night after all the fuss had died down. They were both aware Gamel was sitting in another room; Durene hadn’t come back yet, but the [Knight] was not-eavesdropping, but there for Laken’s safety.
Nevertheless, the [Emperor] had insisted upon meeting Numbtongue, and the [Bard] had shown up as if he’d read Laken’s mind.
After all, they had a history. They had only met once, but Laken felt such a strong connection, he wished he could see Numbtongue. This was the Goblin he had found after the Siege of Liscor. Per his request, Numbtongue had let Laken feel at his face. In return, the Hob had anything he’d asked for, but he’d brought his own drinks.
The [Emperor] kept coughing into one hand politely, then rattled off a bit of French.
“I’m multilingual, you know. I don’t have a gift, but as you must surely know—my world has more than one language. I thought that I could learn your people’s language, and Pebblesnatch has taught me.”
“Hm. Weird. You are a weird [Emperor].”
Laken raised his brows.
“How many have you met?”
The [Bard] just laughed heartily. He took a long drink from his cup, then tried Riverfarm’s new grape wine. It evidently pleased him, and there was a bevy of snacks. After a while, Laken broke the silence.
“How do you enjoy Riverfarm, Numbtongue?”
The [Bard] responded quietly.
“Lots of little lambs. They have cunning eyes.”
“You noticed that?”
“Hrm. They remind me of Mrsha.”
“Egh. I’m just imagining if the Sariants could talk. But the Goblinlands is what I meant.”
Numbtongue didn’t reply for a while, and Laken waited, feeling more nervous of the Hobgoblin’s judgment than Erin or Ryoka’s. When Numbtongue replied, it was simply.
“There is a Watch Captain in Liscor named Zevara. She does not like me. I think she understands I am me, and because of her, I can enter Liscor and am not killed. But she always puts [Guards] on me, for my protection, and if there were many Goblins, I think she would be wary of me. I do not hate her. Erin gets mad, but if I were her, and I knew Redfangs, I would try to wipe out my tribe.”
Numbtongue’s grin was on his teeth, in his voice, even unseen.
“Because we were raiders. We attacked Humans and Drakes, even Gnolls if we found them. I have never met Tremborag, but I have…friends…who knew him. And he was someone I would kill. If his tribe came to you, and I were you, I would kill him. But I wouldn’t have killed the Goblins who came to Erin’s inn. They were my people, and some were even innocent of everything.”
The [Emperor]’s head bowed. Numbtongue went on in the silence.
“But we attacked you, and you thought all of us were one Goblin. Now you know better, and I see Goblins walking around. I was dying and you helped kill me and bring me back. Erin is always Erin. She would cry for one Goblin. We are not rats. We are Goblins, and someday, you will have to suffer if you want to protect us.”
Laken thought of the bearded man’s distaste. He thought of the other nobility and the rumblings of his people. Numbtongue put down his cup with a clink.
“When that day comes, have an escape tunnel for them. And you.”
“What about the rest?”
The [Bard] stretched his legs out and quietly farted into his chair. He waved it in the direction of a sheep spying on the two of them from a bookshelf where it had hollowed out a spot behind the books.
“I don’t like you, Laken Godart. You killed a lot of my friends. I don’t hate you, Laken Godart. You’re better than most Humans. That’s pretty good, eh?”
He looked over, and the blind [Emperor] smiled.
“That’s a high compliment. And a good place to start. Do you think we can be friends?”
Numbtongue shrugged, although he knew Laken couldn’t see it.
“Friends. Allies. Sure. What did you have in mind?”
Laken tilted his head, and the Sariant ran, squeaking, as he focused on it. Gamel had to get up and take it outside, and Laken looked at Numbtongue in that moment of silence.
“Let’s trade secrets. A few interesting ones. We are on a side, and I would like you to know some things I’ve been told. Maybe you can do more than I can, even with an empire.”
The Hobgoblin’s eyes gleamed with interest.
“We are on good sides. Erin talks too much.”
“That she does. And frankly, I feel like I’d call on her if I needed a battering ram. Sometimes, I suspect, you need to protect her from herself. Today might be an example, but I don’t know her well.”
The Hob chuckled.
“She gets good things instead of bad two thirds of the time. Two other days, you would have a cute Water Elemental rolling around.”
Laken’s smile was rueful.
“Well, I can respect that kind of gambling. But there are reasons to keep things from her. For instance—this. I told the Mage’s Guild to lock down the news, and the lambs stole all the [Message] scrolls from your company. Just so Erin doesn’t make this—worse? Lady Rie will report that she is definitely here, and if anyone scries her, she was here and had nothing to do with anything.”
“With what? Did something happen with—the monsters?”
Numbtongue sat up instantly, and Laken produced a [Message].
“It’s happening. Take a look.”
Numbtongue began to read, and Laken appreciated the multicultural level of swearing that began as Numbtongue realized they had really missed great events taking place. But what that was, Erin would find out later.
For now, a [Bard] sat with an [Emperor], and they enjoyed a quiet conversation in the night.
One last thing.
Wiskeria had a long chat with Erin as they mended what bridges they could, metaphorically and literally. She talked, for a while, about what it was like to be Belavierr’s daughter and listened to Erin’s tales.
It sounded like she had a lot to teach Erin. Least of all because, of all the coven that had taught Erin—Califor was probably the only good mother and teacher of the lot.
They had all been the greatest monsters of their ages. Somillune? Erin hadn’t known the tales that made the [Witch of Ash] as feared as she was respected. They had put her on a road to becoming something like them.
Wiskeria would be the other voice in Erin’s ear for a little bit. She’d been up for a while, thinking about lessons, but she’d drifted off in the night. As always, she listened, even if she didn’t want to act on the things she heard, omens and fate.
Tonight, she heard an old man shouting his fury, and he would be a problem. Wiskeria muttered as she turned over and hoped Erin got some sleep.
“Sleep for another thousand years, old man. By the twitching in my toes—fuck off.”
He went silent, and Wiskeria began snoring softly as she began to dream. Then—her eyes snapped open, and she stared up in pure alarm and surprise. Wiskeria sat bolt upright and whirled, looking right and looking left.
“Hello? Who’s there?”
She got up, drew a dagger, and crept around her house for a good thirty minutes, even going outside. But then she went back to her bed and crawled into it. She put her wand, dagger, and hat all close by on her bed and tried to sleep, rattled.
She had never heard anything like that before. It was no watery voice from the deep. It was close—and it sounded like a wail, an eerie sound with no vocal cords. It spoke to her, and Wiskeria listened.
Author’s Notes: It was a three-parter after all. Darn!
I suppose it’s inevitable that when you have a place you haven’t been before, you have to re-explore and such. But here is part of Erin’s adventure in Riverfarm.
However. I think we’ll cut away from here and come back later. I have a plan! The plan just changes now and then. I also need to figure out how to move faster on the Volume 1 rewrites. And the other projects. And Gravesong’s sequel and…
You know, it’s a good problem to have, too many stories to write. But it’s keeping quality up and not abandoning the project that matters. The Wandering Inn is like that with all the plotlines and Riverfarm has been gone for a while. Nevertheless, we do the best we can.
Hope you enjoyed and thanks for reading! Rest assured, all questions will be answered. In fact, if you were reading this any day except the day it was published, you could probably skip ahead and find out what happens next! It’s not a cliffhanger. It’s just a matter of perspective. See you later!
Irurx and Writing for Ducks by Brack!
Erin by Detton!
Pisces and Ceria by butts!