The fire was fading. Evelyth sat beneath a blanket of stars, and grew cold. She forced herself up onto her aching feet, and her knees creaked. She was old, and she wanted to rest, but she could not let the fire go out. And so she left her pack and the urn by the glowing embers and headed from the clearing and into the thick of the forest to find firewood, and perhaps something to slake her hunger.
The land had shifted and cracked, but the woods remained the same. The towns had grown and become cities, but the woods remained the same. Evelyth knew these woods. They had chosen the most pleasant of spots to grow and flourish, and Evelyth wandered between the trees with a smile on her face and clean air in her lungs. The paths were illuminated by starlight, and from the thick she could hear the rustling of rabbits, deer and foxes.
Her bones were cold, but she couldn’t face the task of breaking logs and hunting game. Not yet. She was caught in the calm of the place, and she glided like a ghost, peering up at the moon then hiding from it again under the treetops, as though it were a game and she were a child again. As a child, she had played so few games. Life had been cruel but fair, with toil and hardship and peace and reward. She thought so little of it now. She had made a mountain of her memories, and buried her childhood. But it was still there, if she dug for it. Though not this night. This night she desired only the crisp night air and the company of owls and crickets.
But soon her stomach betrayed her mind, and she grew tired. She had to hunt.
And so Evelyth pressed a comforting hand against the knife at her belt, and stroked the hilt with her thumb. The sheath was old, like her, but the blade was new: a gift from the people of the last village she had visited. She had come to their aid, killing a small band of raiders, and they had shown their kindness with a gift. The blade was of folded steel, with no adornments. Simple, light, and strong. She was grateful, and now it would serve her well.
From the pocket of her cloak, Evelyth drew a small vial and held it up to the moonlight. The liquid inside it glowed a dull gold, and flecks of copper danced in the liquid. She squeezed it tight in her balled fist, and moved off the path and into a thicket of tall bushes. It was pitch dark in places, but the moonlight illuminated enough to aid her purpose, and her ears had not dulled with age. She squatted low, listened, and heard the tell of a hare scurrying but a few yards behind her. To her right she clocked a tree stump, and she listened as the hare shifted restlessly from bush to bush, either oblivious to her presence or unconcerned with it. Moments passed, and the hare found its way to the stump, standing atop it to survey its surroundings. Soundlessly, Evelyth thumbed the cork out of the vial and, with a flick of her wrist, tossed the golden liquid at the stump. As it hit, the glass shattered and a cloud of yellow smoke shrouded the dead tree, and the hare upon it. Soon, the smoke dissipated and Evelyth found the hare alive, unharmed, but utterly paralyzed. It lay on its back, helpless and frightened. She could feel the race of its heart and see the frantic darting of its black pearl eyes. A pang of guilt rose in her for a second, but any hesitation was only further cruelty to the poor creature. Evelyth took the knife from her belt and cut clean the throat of the hare. It made not a sound and died in a moment.
With the hare tied to her belt, the old woman returned to the path and followed it to a stream. The water made music in her ears, and she sat beside it to soak her feet and wash her face. The night was cold, but she could not pass on a brief soak, and soon she would be warm again.
On her return to the clearing, she found that the embers had gone cold, but the wood she had found was thick and dry, and would serve well. Evelyth removed a small cloth pouch from her pack and dipped the fingers and thumb of her left hand inside. When she removed them, all five tips were coated in a blood-red powder. With water she had collected from the stream, Evelyth drenched her fingers and, as she did so, her fingertips were suddenly ablaze with five hot red flames. She smiled, and turned her hand over before her face, watching her fingers dance like living candles. It was beautiful, and she never tired of the feeling. A memory of her first attempt at this came alive in her mind, and she chuckled to herself. She still had the scars. An ugly business, it had been.
With her candle-fingers, Evelyth lit five points in the bundle of logs, and watched as the fire returned to life. Her bones warmed quickly, and she sighed happily. She glanced over to the urn which rested against her pack. ‘Enjoying yourself, brother?’ she asked.
The knife had proven effective for skinning the rabbit and whittling a spit on which to roast it. The meat was tender and filled her empty belly. She thanked the hare for nourishing an old, tired woman, for whatever that was worth. ‘I’m sorry I’ve none for you,’ she said to the urn, ‘but I know how you never cared for small game, and I was hardly in the mood to catch a fish.’
The moon hung overhead, bathing the clearing in a pale glow. The firelight dulled in the ivory air, but the urn’s bronze colour glistened warmly. The old woman shifted slowly, and sat herself down beside it, staring into the flames. ‘I’m sorry it’s taking us so long,’ she said. ‘There are so many folk in need along the way, and I have to help them. After all we’ve done, I must help all I can.’ She took up a branch and poked the fire. ‘Besides, you can’t tell me we aren’t in need of one last journey. Can you, big brother?’
Evelyth rose to meet a red morning sun sitting low on the horizon. Its colour reminded her of the Blood Deserts of the west, where she had once spent many months; in that place the folk spend their lives in a haze of crimson, with an eternally low red sun casting a bloody shadow across the dunes. It was early, and she had not slept for long, but well enough to have strength to continue. She placed the urn gently into her pack, tapped the knife at her belt twice out of habit, and heaved herself up onto her creaking bones. She wrapped her ebony cloak tight around her shoulders, and started south down the forest trail.
The sun rose higher, and now burned a soft marigold, drizzling the treetops with honey and marmalade. A calm settled on the land around her, and Evelyth found an absolute peace. The forest was the kindest of places; it gave her shelter, filled her stomach, kept her clean and never asked for anything. Not all forests were safe, of course, but that was no concern of hers. There was no place in all the land she would rather live out what remained of her days. She wished to fade away in the peace of this place, far from people; to simply dance away on a morning breeze like a scattering of dandelion seeds. But not yet. First she had a journey she must make, and she had only just begun.
The forest trail wound on, past long-dead campsites, over chattering brooks, and through tunnels formed by the tangling of tree tops. She placed a comforting hand on her pack. ‘Why could you not be scattered amongst the mountains?’ Her brother had asked, many years past, to be scattered over the fields of their homeland. Sadly, his wife had passed before he had, and he had nobody left to carry out his wishes. Nobody but his sister.
‘You never failed to surprise me. Not once,’ she said to herself, smiling. ‘Even in your last days, you flat refused to abandon the last refuge of Calthorn. And now they’re all safe, thanks to you. And you’ll see them again soon, I promise.’
As an old man, Raglan had been adamant that the Calthorn could be saved, despite their dwindling numbers, and he had given his life to protect the only people that mattered to him. His wife had been Calthorn, and so, by marriage, had he. ‘So little is left of the world we knew, brother. But the Calthorn hold strong. At the end, you surprised even me. Nobody would’ve blamed you for leaving; for making the journey south with the rest of them. I’m sorry you had to die alone.’ She halted, breathed deep, and took in the sun-drenched scene before her to stop herself from shedding tears. She would not allow herself to be sombre. This was her brother’s final journey, and she would make it a joyous one. ‘But,’ she continued, ‘your life came to an end in your final home, and I’ll lay you to rest in your first home.’
She walked on, catching sight of squirrels darting up the great oaks, and listening to the music the streams made. She decided to stop and fill her skin with fresh water.
‘You know,’ Evelyth said, gripping her pack tight, ‘I feel I can now finally tell you something. And I’m sorry I waited this long, but I just never had the courage till now. I never really liked Kyff. I know she was your wife. And your chief. But she and I spent so many of our days arguing. We were at each other’s throats every time your back was turned.’ She chuckled to herself and took a swig from her skin. ‘You know, one time when you had taken your men out trailing and hunting some Dyaoh Gweh, she and I actually came to blows.’ She kicked playfully at a stone on the path, and watched it disappear into the brush. ‘This was shortly after the Migration, and the chiefs were all on tenterhooks. She wanted to start a family, and I advised her that it wasn’t the time. That it mightn’t ever be the time. And she punched me. Floored me in a blow. We exchanged blows until we each could no longer stand. We lay together, panting and nursing our wounds. A pathetic sight. It was then we agreed that we would likely never see eye to eye.’ She pulled her cloak tightly around herself as a bitter breeze chilled her snow white skin. ‘I’m sorry that you fathered no children, brother. I do hope I’m not to blame for that, but I would think so little of Kyff if she had let a brawl with your sister change her mind. I’ve more respect for her than that. I might not have liked your wife, Raglan, but my respect for her was immeasurable.’
The forest came to an end, and the path became a road which sank into a green and rocky valley. Evelyth knew there to be a village nestled in there, and it was her hope to reach the village by nightfall. She had visited the village once before, and knew its folk to be kind and welcoming. ‘You remember Heise, brother? I’m sure they’ll remember you.’ She chuckled to herself again.
As the sun reached its zenith, Evelyth had managed to cover half the ground between the forest and the village. She afforded herself a break, and sat herself at the base of an outcrop of grey rock. She took the urn from her pack and allowed Raglan a view of the scenery: crisp, cloudless blue skies covered an open sea of green, untamed land which was slowly swallowed by the deep valley below. ‘There is so much peace now, brother,’ she said, patting the top of the urn.
Evelyth readied herself to move off when a fellow traveller made himself known. He was a ragged old man, grey and heavily bearded, and he heaved a cart behind him without the help of a mule, but he did have the company of a hound. Evelyth tapped twice the knife at her hip.
‘Ho there, traveller,’ he rasped. ‘And what brings ye to this place?’ The man stopped and straightened his back with a groan.
‘I ask you the same, friend,’ Evelyth said cautiously. ‘Have you come from the village in the valley?’
‘Indeed, I have. On my way north to collect snow salt, as it happens. Are ye headed into our village?’
‘Snow salt?’ This took Evelyth back. ‘Having some trouble are you, friend?’ She looked him up and down, and glanced the hound which sat obediently by its master’s side. ‘Come sit awhile, won’t you?’
‘Thank ye, deary.’ The man perched himself on the rock, and Evelyth saw that he was all but bone. ‘Tell me your name, dear, and I’ll tell ye our trouble.’
The man chewed his lip for a moment, and the world was still. Finally, he sucked in the chill air, nodded to himself, and said, ‘Well, Ms. Evelyth, I’m afraid our village has come under a nasty misfortune. But if ye know why I’m on my way to collect snow salt, then ye likely know the troubles we’re facing.’
‘Afraid I do, mister-‘
‘Mr. Briggin. And I’m sorry to hear it.’
‘Aye, as am I. Will ye still wish to find shelter in our village, Evelyth?’
Evelyth smiled innocently. ‘I’m afraid I have little choice. I must find shelter for these tired bones before I can continue my journey.’
‘I see. I have some fresh bread I can offer you. My wife baked it this morning, before I set out.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of it, sir,’ Evelyth said with a polite wave. ‘I’ll be at the village before dark. I shall eat my fill then. But, if I might ask, why have your folk chosen a man of your years to make this long journey? You’ll find no snow salt for some twenty miles yet. This is hardly a simple task.’
Briggin nodded at this, and absently stroked the head of his hound. ‘Unfortunately, my dear, the younger men of the village have their hands full attempting to deal with our… misfortune. Little good they can do, though, I’m afraid.’
‘I understand.’ Evelyth rose to her feet, refreshed with a haste to make it to Heise before sundown. ‘I wish you well on your journey, Mr. Briggin.’ She gave a soft bow and scratched the hound atop its head, and then set off again down the valley road.
From behind came the pleading voice of Mr. Briggin: ‘Please do not put yourself in any danger, Ms. Evelyth. We’re a strong folk. We’ll handle ourselves fine.’
But Evelyth gave no response, nor turned her gaze from the valley ahead of her. She simply patted twice the knife at her hip and continued on.
The wild green land to the east and west slowly grew tamer, and fences appeared beyond the rolling hills. The valley all was home to Heise and its people. There were acres of farmland, with sheep and cows grazing freely, and great beanstalks and carrot patches on the flatland at the valley’s base. The village itself was quaint, inoffensive and invisible to any traveller not searching for it. The high valley walls hid the sun for much of early morning and evening, and so shadows loomed over much of its architecture, giving the appearance of a people in slumber. There were woodlands beyond the valley, to the east and west, which Evelyth was unfamiliar with; though she was confident that was where Heise’s misfortunes hid.
As she crossed into the village, she glimpsed only a handful of souls moving about. Many were likely in their homes, supping with their families. The village was all but still, and Evelyth could feel the fear and tension which hung thick in the air, as though the village teetered on the edge of collapse; as though every man and woman was pulled tight as a lute string, and had been for so long that snapping would be a release.
Evelyth spoke to a man who was pushing a cart of fresh vegetables, and he pointed her to the tavern, which also offered board and would have rooms free. She thanked him with a nod and made for the tavern.
It was the largest structure in the village by far, and the oldest. It was made from oak, and held strong, but some parts had darkened with age and some of the panelling was bowing heavily; the chimney had clearly been rebuilt several times. Evelyth entered and the heat from the fire struck her pleasantly; she felt her muscles relax in a moment. She removed her hood and let her cloak hang loose. A few heads rose to the sight of a stranger, but soon lost interest. She was simply a weary old woman.
She took a seat at a bench and the keep brought her a cup of wine and lit the candle for her. She surveyed the room and felt a great unease: fists were clenched and feet were tapping. The people were afraid, but doing what they could to forget and enjoy their evening.
When the keep brought her a plate of roast beef and vegetables, Evelyth enquired about board.
‘Just the one night is it, m’dear?’ he asked.
‘Aye, one should do to refresh me. Though, if I chose to stay a second, would that be a problem?’
‘No problem for us,’ said the keep, rubbing his hands together, ‘but I can’t say I’d advise it.’
‘Why ever not?’
The keep swallowed in a dry throat. ‘Well, you know how these roads can be. There’s bandits and… and so forth.’
‘This far north?’ Evelyth asked with a furrowed brow. ‘Have you been having trouble with bandits recently?’
‘Ah, no, not in truth, m’dear. Ye can stay long as you want, long as your coin’s good. There’s rooms just upstairs.’ He forced a smile.
‘Thank you,’ she said calmly. The keep nodded and left her.
Evelyth picked at her food, contemplating her situation. The village needed aid, and it needed it this night. She was in little rush; Raglan would likely not complain of her speed, and would judge her harshly if she were to leave come morning and abandon these folk to their fate. If she pushed on, many of these folk would see only a few more sunsets. Some might flee, and even make it far enough to find sanctuary, but certainly not all. If she were to stay, she would need more than a knife, and she saw no weapon smith in the village square. Though she had her vials, and plenty of them, and perhaps the knife would be enough, if she was smart. There was also the matter of addressing the issue delicately. No person in the tavern spoke of the danger, and instead let their words dance around it with talk of harvest, harsh winds and new-born babes. But their hands and faces screamed it; they howled and cried.
‘Dyaoh Gweh.’ Evelyth spoke sharply to the room, and all chatter ceased. She glanced around at the pale faces, and watched them each droop and the heads hang. ‘You have Dyaoh Gweh out there in the woods, do you not?’
A sickening tension drowned the room, but one voice spoke up: ‘Do not speak of it.’
‘Why?’ She asked the room again. ‘Has remaining silent kept them from your children? Has it forced them back, away from the village?’
Silence again. Then the keep spoke. ‘What good does talkin’ about it do us? They’re comin’ all the same. They’ll come tonight, as they’ve done every night. Why should we spend our time talkin’ of it, too?’
‘What are you doing about them?’
‘What is there to do?’ The keep moved from the bar and stood in the middle of the room, with the diners and drinkers around him all stealing glances at him and one another. But not at Evelyth. They couldn’t seem to lock eyes with her, as though they carried the shame of it; as though their being haunted was their own doing. ‘We have men out there hunting by day, and already… already two have not returned by next morning. We ain’t hunters, miss.’
‘How many have been seen inside the village?’ Evelyth asked.
‘Four,’ said the keep.
‘Five,’ a voice said; a man sat alone at the bar. ‘One took my girl early hours o’ this morn.’ His voice was empty.
Nobody spoke for several moments. Evelyth chewed on her tongue. Something had to be done. She had not the time to prepare and set off for a hunt that same night, but she could spare the village a few days of her time. She could prepare on the morrow and set off on the next sunset. But this night she had to at least keep the folk safe, not let any be taken. And she knew she could do that much.
‘So five have been seen, at least one child taken, and two men vanished,’ she said with a sombre nod. She ground her teeth and sighed deep.
‘Excuse me, miss, beggin’ your pardon, but why have you come here?’ The voice belonged to a young man, no older than sixteen. He sat with his father at the table next to Evelyth’s. She glimpsed the boy’s father scold his curiosity.
‘I’m a traveller, headed south to my homeland. I was simply looking for food and shelter for the night.’
‘But how did ye know about our misfortune?’ the keep inquired. The gates had opened, the questioning begun, and would likely now continue.
‘I met a man from your village on my way here. A Mr. Briggin. He explained that he was venturing north to seek snow salt. Snow salt is effective at repelling, even poisoning, the Gweh.’ She watched their faces crease at the mention of their name. ‘Whoever sent him on his journey was wise. Though I felt terribly sorry for seeing such a burden being forced onto the shoulders of such a fragile man.’
‘Are you yourself not frail, miss?’ came the question from the man-boy, followed by another scold from his father.
Evelyth smiled to herself. ‘I did not say that I wasn’t. But that does not mean, much like your Mr. Briggin, that I cannot help you.’
A quiet gasp here and a mutter there.
The keep made his way to her table, and sat himself down opposite her. He leaned forward on his elbows, and stroked the greying edges of his beard. ‘You can help us?’
‘Yes,’ she said softly, and she smiled at him.
‘What’s your name, miss?’
The keep gripped hold of his beard; he smiled and his eyes welled. The room had exploded into chatter and excited gestures. Evelyth smiled at the keep, who had held her gaze and was unable to turn away. He drank her in: her grey long hair with streaks of its old ebony beauty; her snow-pale skin; the pitch cloak which still hung on her shoulders. He scratched his bald head and said in a whisper, ‘you’re dead.’
Evelyth chuckled. ‘I can assure you, I am not. Not yet.’
‘But you’ve not been seen in a decade.’
‘I’ve been busy.’ She glanced at her pack with the urn inside, and smiled a sad smile. ‘But I’ve not been dead. And I can help you.’
‘Methinks you can, m’lady,’ said the keep, his eyes still glistening.
‘Please, don’t,’ she said, and placed a hand on his, just for a moment.
The keep got to his feet and returned to the bar. The chatter petered out and the keep spoke clearly, still stroking his beard. ‘Ms. Evelyth has offered to help us. And we’ll do what we can to aid her in return. What do you need, Ms. Evelyth?’
Evelyth rose from her seat. She glanced out the window at the dark which had settled on the valley. ‘The Gweh will come this night, and they will come soon. I have no time to begin a hunt for them, nor even to keep them from entering the village. They will be amongst us in an hour, no more. But I can keep us safe, at least for this night. Then, tomorrow, I shall begin my hunt. Now, how many people in this village, and how many homes?’
‘Eighty folk,’ said the keep, ‘give or take. And about twenty homes.’
Without a word, Evelyth reached into her pack and retrieved two large leather pouches, bound at the openings with string. She handed the pouches to two young women who sat near the door. ‘Inside these pouches is what your man Briggin set off to find: snow salt. I need you each to sprinkle some at the ground beneath every door and window of every house in the village. Take ten homes each, and be done within the hour. Go, and don’t forget this building either.’ The women stood without a word, and made for the door. ‘Wait!’ Evelyth reached again for her pack and pulled out a small grain bag. Inside were a hundred stalks and leaves of an unremarkable green plant. She handed a leaf to each woman. ‘Chew on these and swallow them down.’ And with that, the two women bolted through the door and were gone.
‘The rest of you, do the same,’ she instructed, handing the grain bag to the keep to pass around. ‘The leaves will render you undesirable to the Gweh. Should they come near you, they should not wish to touch you. And that is enough. I do not have enough for the people in their homes, but if every door and window is sealed by the snow salt, the people inside won’t need the cray leaves.’
It was a long hour, with the two women returning after some time, their pouches empty. Every person in the tavern wore a mask of terror, the blood drained from their faces.
Minutes bled away, and the candles had begun to flicker out. The keep was too shaken to relight them, though it did not matter if he did or not. There was little talk inside, with every person holding their breath. Some stole glances out the windows, acting as watchmen or just slaking their curiosity, while others looked any place but outside, terrified of what they might see if they did. Evelyth stood and perched at the window next to the door, and she watched the world outside. Through the dark, she could see most houses were asleep with no candles lit, but some had chosen to keep their flames bright, perhaps hoping that they could chase the dark away with the light, or simply wanting to distract themselves from peering out into the night.
A figure caught Evelyth’s eye out in the dark. It shuffled slowly past the window, and Evelyth saw its ragged clothes, gaunt figure, and its hideous swollen crimson tongue lolling from his mouth, hanging past its chin. It was a man, once. ‘How did…?’ she mumbled to herself. Then she caught sight of the noose about its neck, the rope frayed. ‘Someone cut you down,’ she whispered. ‘Who would…?’ Another joined it, a female. She, too, wore a frayed noose about her neck.
Evelyth turned to the room. Some others, judging from their faces, had also seen the Gweh. ‘I need a closer look. Now, you’ve all swallowed the cray leaves, so does anyone feel brave enough to venture out with me?’
Her question was met with a still silence.
But then, ‘Aye, I will.’ Evelyth looked up to see the keep moving over to her, fear and curiosity mingling in his stare. She gave a curt nod and turned the handle of the tavern door, leading the keep out into the dark.
The air was bitter, and a breeze brought a biting chill across Evelyth’s face. She wrapped herself tight with her cloak and took a few steps forward. The Gweh’s numbers had risen to four, and they were roaming closer to the houses now, but not attempting to enter. One was mere yards away, silent with its grotesque tongue drooping like the pathetic image of a hanged man, and the other three kept close to the dwellings across the road. All had their nooses frayed and cut, and all moved as though walking was a lost art. They seemed so broken, so frail, but they were anything but. The Dyaoh Gweh were among the deadliest things to walk the land, and Evelyth feared them just as every man and woman did. But she knew how to deal with them.
‘Are you well?’ she asked the keep.
‘Don’t worry about me, miss. I had to see these close up.’
‘Evelyth nodded. ‘I’m glad someone came with me. I may have need of your eyes before we return to the tavern.’ The keep did not respond. ‘What’s your name, sir? My manners fail me tonight, it seems.’
The keep snorted. ‘I think you can be forgiven for that. My name’s Garrik, though most here just call me Keep.’
‘Well, thank you for your company on this merry evening stroll, Garrik.’
Garrik let out a chuckle. ‘You have incredible courage, Ms. Evelyth.’
‘So I’ve been told. Now, do you still count four?’
‘I do indeed.’
‘Their… tongues,’ he said, not hiding his disgust. ‘So vile how their jaws hang open. And how red their tongues are. Like blood.’
‘Sad to say that is blood,’ said Evelyth calmly. ‘Though not of any victim. That’s their own blood that swells and stretches their tongues. I’ve never uncovered the reason behind it, but the weight of it breaks their jaws, and leaves them hanging.’
Garrik scoffed. ‘So vile,’ he said again.
The pair made their way down the street, treading lightly and speaking softly though it made little difference. They were safe, so long as they did not allow the Gweh to touch them.
‘How many do you see now?’ Evelyth asked.
Garrik surveyed all he could see and said, ‘six.’
Evelyth nodded to herself. ‘Where are the other two?’
‘Okay.’ Evelyth turned on her heels and led Garrik towards the two new Gweh, with their tongues lolling just the same. But one was without a noose. ‘Garrik,’ she said softly, gripping his arm and holding him still, ‘do you recognise that one?’ She pointed to the Dyaoh Gweh which wore no noose.
Garrik was silent for a moment, then spoke with a crack in his voice. ‘His name was Havith.’
The old woman squeezed his arm again. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay. I knew that’s what became of any who were taken.’
‘It won’t happen to any more of you. I promise.’ She released him. ‘Now, let’s return. They’ll give up their search soon, and return to the woods.’
In the tavern, the men and women had allowed themselves to relax somewhat. No threat could be seen at the window, and no homes had been invaded. They were safe for that night. But tomorrow, Evelyth would need to act.
A shower of thanks came from every person. The people bowed and smiled and shook Evelyth’s hand. The keep served ale and wine, and Evelyth drank with them merrily. The wine was sweet and chilled, and nerves were calmed at last. ‘You have done us a great kindness,’ a woman of Evelyth’s own age said to her. ‘I’m sorry we cannot repay what you have done,’ said a weary man of middle years. Evelyth warned them that it was not over yet, but that she would be with them until it was. This announcement was followed by another shower of praise and thanks, which Evelyth drank humbly.
‘Ms. Evelyth,’ Garrik began, ‘where have you been these years? Pardon my forwardness, and please don’t wonder if we’ve met before, because we haven’t. But I know you as well as any man does, and all say you passed some ten years ago.’
‘I wished to fade away,’ she said simply. ‘I’ve been living out my last years in the north, where once the Calthorn dwelled, with my brother. And though we have not met before, Mr. Garrik, I have indeed spent time in your village, short as it was. And the folk were as courteous then as they have been to me today. Despite my brother’s… drunken misdemeanours.’
The keep guffawed at that. ‘I’m sure it was taken as a great honour that Raglan himself chose our humble hamlet in which to get himself shitfaced. If you’ll pardon my language, Ms. Evelyth.’
Evelyth let out an unbound laugh at the memory of her brother releasing the pigs from their pen at midnight, only to fall asleep there himself moments later.
‘You’re a kind man, Garrik.’
‘Say not, m’la… Evelyth. And fear ye not, your food and board here shall be free for as long as you choose to stay.’
‘I thank you, but please do not think this is over. As I’ve said, there is more yet to do to be rid of the Gweh. And I have need of you, yet, if you’ll aid me?’
‘Of course I shall,’ he said, passing her a fresh cup of wine.
‘But who is she, father?’
Evelyth glanced over to the window, to see the young man sat under it with his father.
‘She’s a great lady, son. And a good one, too,’ the father said gruffly. ‘And she deserves your respect. You’d likely never’ve been born without what the Lady Evelyth did for us. For all of us.’ He drank deep his cup, and hailed Garrik for another. The people of the tavern were relaxing and celebrating, true enough. But folk had still been lost, and one a child, no less, and so they still had sorrows to drown. And the drink aided that, too, softening its blow and drowning the memory as much as were possible.
After some time passed, the tavern door swung open, and in poured several women and men, with their children. Word had gotten out that Evelyth had entered their village, and been the one to save it. They wanted to meet her, and for their children to know her. She was flattered, and a little overwhelmed. It was not why she had come, and certainly not why she had helped them. But she was courteous, and friendly, and grateful for their kind words. The tavern was alive with chatter and merriment, and the fireplace and candles burned bright. The dark had been chased away, and a warm glow filled the place.
More time passed, wherein Evelyth explained what would happen on the morrow, and the aid she would require. She explained that it would be dangerous and take at least a day and night, but it could be done, and she had accomplished tougher tasks than this one.
‘What tasks?’ a young girl looked up and asked, with her great green eyes glistening. Evelyth simply smiled down at the girl.
‘What other monsters have you slain, Ms. Evelyth?’ came a question from a young lad full of energy.
‘Monsters do not exist,’ was Evelyth’s answer. ‘Only mistakes.’
‘What does that mean?’ the boy asked, chewing on his finger.
‘That would take some explaining, I suppose.’
‘We have time,’ said Garrik from behind the boy. ‘I’m not sure any of us will be sleeping tonight, and if you would accept some free cups of wine, and a slice of my own home-made pumpkin pie, would you be kind enough to regale us with some tales, Ms. Evelyth? The children would adore to hear something of what you’ve done in your lifetime, I’m sure.’ The children nodded, and their brothers and sisters began to gather around her.
Evelyth was tired, but she could not be so cruel as to deny the children a story. She sat herself comfortably beside the fire, held her wine close to her chest, and pondered where to begin. ‘Well,’ she said to the children, ‘where else to begin but the beginning?’