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Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

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Being a rain-soaked rat of a woman in these parts was, by now, an intimately familiar state of existence. Being a rain-soaked rat of a woman against this much windchill, however, was both new and worse.

Cassandra shivered in the saddle, bundled up against the wind whipping her with sleet as best she could. The light little cloak she had taken with herself when she was leaving Castle Corona, though reasonably water-resistant, was no longer an adequate outer layer of clothing, not this long into the autumn and not this far from her home kingdom’s comparatively light winters—barring the curse-caused blizzard two winters back, admittedly. The sea, she thought as she brushed the slowly building up layer of partially melted snow from her reinforced glove. While Equis wasn’t entirely land-locked, the nearest shore was quite a ways away, weeks of travel even in a bird’s flight—entirely enough for the air to turn dryer and the climate harsher. She was going to need a warmer cloak made. Or just a longer coat, if with slits on the sides to still allow for mounting a horse. And definitely boots, especially if the wet, muddy weather was to hold. Maybe just an entire change of warmer clothes, Cassandra admitted with resignation, in which case she should probably hunt something for pelts to save up both on money and on time.

She pushed her hood’s edge a little up her forehead so she could look around, squinting through the frozen rain. The lone, massive weeping willow Moreen had described loomed ahead, marking the spot Cassandra was supposed to take a left at to get to Tyson farm without trampling a field.

Hoot, Owl complained from where he was tucked into Cassandra’s neckline, his head nestled against her throat, as they began to trek directly into the wind.

Snort, Fidella echoed, whole-heartedly disgusted.

“Me too, you guys,” Cassandra grumbled as the tugged the hood of her cloak as far down as it would go.

Snort, Fidella repeated, more insistently now.

Cassandra paused at that. Lifted a hand to shield Owl from the sleet carried on the wind as she leaned into the next sharper gust to blow past, sniffed against it. “I can’t smell anything yet.”

Snort, Fidella said patiently and continued on, as if to emphasize the 'yet'.

Frowning, Cassandra readjusted her flimsy little cloak around Owl and herself. Horses had a keener sense of smell than humans, she was pretty sure, and so she wasn’t too worried. But the fact that she could smell nothing also meant she could smell no woodsmoke—just as she could see no lit windows in the distance, despite being on a path that led straight to a farmhouse, if directions given by one of that household’s members were to be believed. And especially when coupled with the autumn’s early nightfall, the chilly wind, and the sleet carried upon it, the lack of any beacons of firelight ahead meant that any last dregs of hope Cassandra may have harboured about the Tysons’ situation being just an elaborate misunderstanding were losing substance quickly indeed.

She pulled on the reins, signalling Fidella to stop, as she spotted something a little ways off the path. Folding one arm around Owl to cushion him from the impact of her feet hitting the ground, Cassandra dismounted and walked out into the field, towards a darker shape upon the ground. A cow, she realized quickly—or rather, the skeletal remains of one, gnawed on and cleansed of flesh rather thoroughly by whatever predators that felled it, by any carrion eaters that got to the carcass afterwards.

“Hm.” She looked to Fidella. “Think this is what you smelled earlier?”

Snort, Fidella said negatively.

“Same smell, though?”

The mare confirmed with a little whinny. Cassandra looked at the bones again.

“Well then.”

There were no tracks left in the soil anymore, not after that many days of almost non-stop heavy rain, and no way to tell what had been responsible. But any predator large enough to bring down cattle—whether wolf, bear, mountain lion, or something entirely unknown, or even just a group of hungry outlaws—was likely going to be a problem.

Cassandra climbed into the saddle again and nudged Fidella to continue on. Not a half hour longer, during which the frozen rain mercifully subsided at long last, Cassandra squinted through the rapidly descending nightfall as she thought she spied a darker shadow of buildings ahead. Another gust of wind, and she clasped a hand over her nose and mouth as she abruptly learned what the mare had meant earlier.

“Oh, son of a—”

Fidella tossed her head with a disgruntled whinny.

“—mother.”

The stench of death was heavy in the air so close to the farmhouse, a noxious odour of rotting meat hanging over the muddy courtyard like a cloud. Cassandra pulled a scarf out of one of her saddlebags and tied it around her face, wishing fervently that the smell of smoke from the Brazen Brigand’s hearth would cling to the fabric for as long as possible, then opened the top of her tunic to let Owl outside.

“Fly perimeter for me, please.”

Hoot, Owl acquiesced easily, and took off into the night sky.

Cassandra climbed down from the saddle again and lit herself a torch. The door to the house was closed, but that to the barn was laying in the mud, evidently rammed off its hinges from the inside—a desperate bull’s job, it looked like. She glanced inside the barn, but didn’t enter for how much more intense the stench of decay was there, and thought she spied the remains of at least one more cow within, at the edge of firelight from her torch. Noticing a chicken coop beside one of the barn’s walls, she broke the flimsy lock at its door to open it, and regretted that choice immediately as she found nothing but dead chickens, rotting feathers, broken eggshells, and a smell to match. Then she walked up to the house, switched the torch into her withered hand, and pulled the door open, finding that it hadn’t been locked.

The inside of the house hadn’t been disturbed much. There were still sacks and baskets and hams hung at the ceiling, the remains of a half-eaten meal long since finished by mice across the table—set for three people—the ladder up to a small attic area at the far end of the building hadn’t been pulled up, the chests and the cupboards were closed and orderly.

It certainly ruled out bandit culprits, Cassandra thought to herself as she wiped her boots on the doormat and walked inside. Whether for wealth or for food, anyone intending to raid the farmhouse would have ransacked it and taken as much as they could carry. Including the livestock—if not the cattle, then at least the chickens—instead of just leaving them to die where they stood.

She moved her torch in a wide arc, looking at the floor now, strewn with rodent droppings as it was. There were drag marks on the uneven clay surface underfoot, in how the straw scattered all across it had been pushed aside, in bloodstains that looked as if the blood had been sloppily wiped while wet but not scrubbed clean afterwards: two sets leading from inside the house to the doorstep.

Murder, then, and a very poorly masked one at that.

At least with Moreen smart enough to stay careful, and with Sebastian kind enough to consistently refuse service to the man who had most likely been responsible, Cassandra didn’t have to ride back overnight in an attempt to outrun impending tragedy again.

She sighed, then looked at Fidella over her shoulder. “Come on in. I’ll start a fire for the night, and look for the bodies once the sun comes up.”

Snort, Fidella said uneasily as she bowed herself enough to fit through the door.

“Well, it’s this or the barn with dead cattle inside it, you can pick whichever sounds better to you.”

Fidella gave her an unimpressed look, digging a hoof against the clay floor.

“I thought you might see my point.” Cassandra glanced up the chimney, and upon catching a glimpse of stars between clouds, she stacked firewood in the hearth and started it with her torch. While she was doing that, Owl flew in through the still-open door, and perched on a rafter. “Found anything?”

Hoot, Owl began counting out.

“So one in the field along the way, at least one in the barn, and another at the edge of the woods. Should’ve asked how much cattle they had before I left town,” Cassandra grumbled.

Hoot, Owl continued.

“Please tell me it was normal wolves, at least, and there was nothing as messed up as with the hounds in Wolf’s Head Hollow going on.”

Hoot, Owl confirmed.

“Okay, what else?”

Hoot, Owl told her.

Cassandra sighed again. “Of course he didn’t even bury them. Why would he, if he left the chickens inside the coop for weeks, and didn’t leave enough feed with the cattle. Anything more?”

Hoot, Owl said negatively.

“Alright. Good job. Let’s just stay warm overnight and I’ll deal with all that in the morning.” Cassandra closed the door and, upon noticing two iron hooks on its inner side, barred it for good measure. As she turned around, she caught a glimpse of colour—or reflected light, perhaps—under one of the cupboards. She walked up to it and knelt down, a prudent step away, so she could put her cheek to the floor and look under the cupboard.

An inhuman, high-pitched, modulated growl came from the darkness underneath.

“Here, kitty, kitty,” Cassandra said.

The cat hissed at her.

“Yeah, that figures.” Cassandra stood back up. “Owl, if you’re going to hunt for some of these mice overnight, can you catch a few for that fellow as well?”

Hoot, Owl agreed easily.

“Thanks.”

After hanging the clothes drenched with rain and sleet out to dry and tending to Fidella’s needs, Cassandra spent most of the evening going through the farmhouse to try and salvage what little was still left—cleaning the pantry of curdled milk and various foodstuffs that mice have gotten into, hanging a few more sacks from the rafters for protection against the rodents, climbing up to the ceiling to stuff more straw into the thatching where the recent wind and rain had caused a leak, sweeping the floors clean of old straw and rodent droppings. Keeping in mind that an actual burial would need holding, she went through several of the wooden chests in search of the most battered fabrics large enough to wrap an adult person in, to stitch into shrouds later. If the Tysons had been dead for nearly two weeks, they were not going to look pretty, and it would be a cruelty to let their daughter see them like that.

So much for no longer having to sew because of her arm, Cassandra thought tiredly as she folded a linen tablecloth with a few prominent stains that could not be washed out and a tattered wool blanket into her arms.

She considered climbing up to the small, open attic for the night, but decided that it would be weird to sleep in the dead people’s bed, and set out her bedroll on the floor beside the hearth instead. Mice weren’t going to be a problem with Owl around—and while she did crack her eyes open a few times, overnight, to the sound of a terrified little squeak abruptly cut short, none of her gear was gnawed on in the morning, and there were no new droppings within a fairly wide radius of the spot she had picked to sleep in.

There were also the scant remains of several unfortunate mice next to the cupboard, and the cat—its coat a two-toned, striped orange—was sitting beside it, instead of underneath, cleaning its muzzle with a licked forepaw when Cassandra blinked awake. As soon as she stirred, the cat startled, but froze in place immediately after rather than scamper back into its hiding place.

“Here, kitty, kitty,” Cassandra said again, without putting much heart into it. Then yawned and stretched slowly. “Alright, let’s not pretend we’re both stupid, I know you don’t like me.”

The cat licked its muzzle one more time, but otherwise stayed still.

“I’m going outside, then I’ll come back for a bit, then I’m leaving to bring Moreen back.” Cassandra watched the cat’s ears perk up at the name. “She’s okay, she’s the one who sent me. You just stay safe here, alright? I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you again.”

Mrow, the cat said in a forlorn tone.

“I know the other two aren’t okay. I can’t fix that,” Cassandra said gently as she sat up. “Did you see what happened?”

Mrow, the cat summarized.

“Not much of a fight, huh? Was it Carter?”

The cat folded its ears back and hissed, the sad doe-eyed look on its face instantly transforming into a visage of fury at that name.

“Yeah, that tracks.” Cassandra sighed. “I’ll leave a bit of better food for you, huh?”

And it was a good sign that the cat was eating in the first place, she thought as she left behind a generous handful of scraps sheared off the smoked ham by the ceiling. At least one thing was alive, and likely to stay alive, on this death-choked nightmare of a farm.

Snort, Fidella reminded as she followed Cassandra out of the house.

“I haven’t forgotten about eating, I just don’t want to eat before I’m done with the bodies,” Cassandra said dryly as she tied the freshly smoke-soaked scarf over her face again. “You can come if you like, but if there’s a wheelbarrow or anything similar around here, I’ll have to be using that instead of ride you.”

Snort, Fidella said nonetheless.

“Alright then. Give me a second.” Cassandra went into the doorless barn.

The significantly more intense stench of decay was coming from not one, but two dead cows, she discovered—both with the muzzles of their skulls laid amidst torn-up, spilled sacks of grain. Must have gorged themselves and died of bloat, Cassandra thought as the tried not to breathe and to look around as quickly as possible. There wasn’t a wheelbarrow in sight, but there was what looked to be the remains of another large wooden chest, lidless and with a pair of short, broad skis nailed to its bottom. It would do, Cassandra decided, and yanked on the rope attached to its front to pull it outside and through the ever-present mud. She then put her withered fingertips, glove and all, underneath the scarf and into her mouth to let out a sharp two-toned whistle at Owl.

“Which way?”

Hoot, Owl said, and flew ahead.

Finding the Tysons’ bodies wasn’t a challenge—not with a flying scout to lead her there. The shallow ditch they’ve been heaped into had since become almost a creek bed through the recent heavy rains, as well, turning the open grave into a deep puddle choked with muddy sludge. The challenge, Cassandra found, was in pulling the remains out of all that in a manner as respectful as at all possible. Then in stitching up the tablecloth and the blanket with a thick shoemaking cord that would hold well enough. Then in carrying the now-enshrouded bodies into that makeshift sled, while trying not to think about how swiftly the fabric was soaking through with rainwater and worse, how much work in the same vein was left with the barn and the chicken coop, how sickening the consequences could be if her reinforced glove was allowed to soak that sludge up. And by the time she was done, Cassandra found herself thankful several times over for deciding to delay breakfast after all of that has been dealt with.

She left the ditch as it was and started pulling the sled back towards the farm with one arm, her right glove tucked into her belt and her withered arm into her tunic, Fidella walking beside her and Owl perched atop the saddle. After dragging the bodies into the barn for now, Cassandra went back into the farmhouse to clean herself as thoroughly as humanly possible and change her clothes; the orange cat watched her throughout, curled up comfortably atop one of the wooden chests, but made no move—whether to approach or to hide. Finally, when Cassandra felt somewhere halfway to clean again, she ate a very late breakfast and tried to ignore how anything she put in her mouth tasted like ash, then donned her now-dried reinforced glove again and climbed into Fidella’s saddle to ride back towards Silberstadt, putting the mare through her paces this time.

When she arrived to where one of the dirt roads criss-crossing the town morphed into a street, however, it was to find a makeshift checkpoint under construction. The Equisian garrison was really beginning to take things seriously, Cassandra realized with more than a little surprise, raising one hand in a greeting as she approached.

“What business have you in town?” one of the guards called out to her.

“Sir, I’ve been in the neighbourhood for a month and a half,” Cassandra said calmly as she pulled Fidella to a halt in front of the checkpoint.

The guard’s eyes narrowed. “What’s a Coronian mercenary doing here for a month and a half?”

“I’ve engaged in a bit of sellsword work and in renovating the clinic, sir.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s running the clinic, then?”

“Emil, his daughter Eliza, and her husband Bruno,” Cassandra answered easily, growing frustrated. “May I enter, sir?”

The guard glared her a moment longer before he motioned his companions to open the checkpoint for her. “We’re watching you.”

Cassandra inclined her head to him as she passed through, and rolled her eyes as soon as she left the guards behind her. Equisian bastards, she caught herself thinking, and chided herself for it.

“Seven Kingdom scum,” she heard one of them muttering behind her back.

Never mind any more chiding she was about to engage in, then.

She gave Fidella’s reins to the Brazen Brigand’s stable boy, along with one more silver than she was supposed to pay, then turned as Owl alerted her with a hoot. A man was approaching her—modest-to-poor dress, unshaven for a few days—a local, and a familiar one. The same Sebastian had been yelling at to get out of his inn every day.

“You, Coronian—”

“Are you Carter Jenkins?” Cassandra cut him off.

Carter paused for a moment. “Maybe. What it’s to you?”

“I know what you did,” Cassandra said coldly.

He gave her an odd look—fear mixed with an attempt at intimidation. “Are you accusing me of something?”

“I don’t have to. I know exactly what you did. And in a minute, she’s going to know, as well.” Cassandra turned away from him, intent on walking through the Brigand’s door, and was pulled to a halt as the farmhand grabbed her arm.

“I can pay you. She can’t pay you. What do you want, huh? You’ll have it.”

“I want you to stop coming after her,” Cassandra said, slowly, and very clearly. “Now, hands off.”

Carter’s eyes darkened. His grip on Cassandra’s arm hardened. “Oh, you want her for yourself, is that it? Not if I have anything to say about it, you—”

He cut himself short with a yelp as Cassandra grabbed his wrist and stopped just short of dislocating it.

“Hands off, or I will break them off.”

“Like hell you will, right in front of the town square? The guards will break more than just your hands.” Carter laughed a little, a desperate look on his face now along with the fear. “Let’s be smart about this, huh? You tell her the truth—you tell her it was a bandit attack—and I’ll make you rich. She can’t do that. She has nothing to give you. But I do. We got a deal, yeah? You do your bit and I’ll do mine, partner.”

Cassandra heard her voice dip into a growl. “One more word out your mouth and you’ll be coughing it back up along with your teeth, you murdering piece of—”

“Oy, Kazandra!”

She turned at the sound of a familiar voice, if with a scowl at how the Ingvarrdian accent mangled her name, and saw Sigrid walking up towards them across the square.

The fletcher indicated Carter with a jerk of her chin. “Is he bothering you?”

“He is, in fact,” Cassandra admitted gratefully.

Sigrid gave an exaggerated sigh, and put the farmhand into a headlock, one far less gentle than the one Cassandra had been on the receiving end of. “Carter, Carter, we’ve talked about this. No one will think you’re cool enough to be gay just because you’re crushing only on extremely inaccessible women. It’s time to play in your league. I’m sure there are still pigs around that aren’t taken.”

“Agh– fucking—” Carter tried to push her off. The only thing he accomplished was that Sigrid flexed the arm she had around his neck. “Get off me, witch!”

“That’s sorceress to you.” Sigrid’s voice hardened from it’s demeaningly indulgent tone. When she looked up again, an odd look passed through her face, and her eyes momentarily flashed silver-and-black as she slowly sniffed at Cassandra and licked the smell from her lips. “You have the stench of death about you. What happened?”

Cassandra indicated Carter with a nod. “Why don’t you ask our little friend?”

Sigrid’s eyes, human-like again, narrowed slowly. “Ah-ha. I see.”

“You can’t prove anything,” the farmhand snarled at them.

“Can’t I? What was that about a witch, again?” Sigrid ran her knuckles across his scalp, only slightly too hard to be considered friendly, and yanked him off Cassandra, sending him stumbling away after herself as she walked off. “You know, it’s a real shame you don’t have feathers. I was thinking about finding myself something already soaked through with death.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about—!”

“I’d pluck you like a chicken, little boy.” The fletcher gave a contented laugh as she hauled him away from the tavern door. “Oh, but that would fly like a dream.”

Cassandra smiled as she watched Carter finally break out of that headlock, exactly at the moment a guard patrol had begun walking over. With Sigrid heading back to the smithy, unbothered, Cassandra went into the Brigand’s dining floor, waving a hello at Sebastian as she quickly scanned the tables.

“Is miss Tyson around?”

“Yeah, right over where she usually sits,” Sebastian nodded towards the countertop’s hidden corner, at the same time as Moreen leaned out from it.

“You’re back so soon? Did you find what...?”

Cassandra folded her arms behind her back, and tried to make her voice sound gentle. “Your parents are dead.”

Moreen looked down, sagging a little where she was on a heavy sigh.

“Fuck,” Sebastian said softly. “Listen, if there’s anything I can do to help—”

“No. No, I already owe you enough.” Moreen pressed a hand to her eyes and took a deep breath before looking at Cassandra again and beckoning her over. “I knew this was what you were going to say, but thank you for going all the same. And I know there’s probably... not much left to go off after all this time, but... do you have any idea what could have happened?”

“It looked like there was an argument and a scuffle over a meal for three,” Cassandra said as she leaned against the counter rather than sit. “Then two bodies were dragged outside.”

“Carter.” Moreen’s voice dropped into a dangerous tone.

“That would be my suspicion,” Cassandra agreed, choosing to omit that a cat had told her as much. “There weren’t any obvious signs of theft. A lot of things are left in their places. It’s obviously not been a raid of bandits or marauding soldiers. So I think he killed them after you left, then followed you here, and has been around waiting for you ever since—just now, he tried to bribe me into lying to you. I can’t do anything in town, not with how many guards are swarming here now and not with how they’re just begging for an excuse to give me trouble. And I don’t have any actual hard evidence to make a formal accusation. But if you’re okay with going home, I’d like to tag along, because he’ll follow you again.”

“And you’ll deal with him away from the guards’ eyes?” Moreen asked hopefully.

“I’ve killed murderers around here before,” Cassandra said calmly. “I can do it again.”

“Thank you. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Moreen reached between them, and it took Cassandra a moment to realize that her withered hand was being held in both the farmer’s own now. “Did you see if the animals are okay?”

“I found four dead cows. Or what was left of them, rather,” Cassandra said uncomfortably. “How many heads of cattle did you have?”

“Four.” Moreen leaned her back against the wall, as if staggered with this next piece of devastating news. “And the chickens?”

Cassandra cleared her throat. “He left them shut in the coop without food or water this entire time.”

“Bastard,” Moreen hissed as she hid her face in her hands.

“I’ve, uh, retrieved your parents’ bodies,” Cassandra said as she reached to place a hand on Moreen’s shoulder in a gesture she hoped would be comforting. “If there’s any place you can think of where they’d like to be buried, I’ll help you dig.”

“He didn’t even bury them?” Moreen’s voice broke.

“I found a cat that made it through okay,” Cassandra offered lamely.

“Oh—” Moreen rubbed at her eyes furiously before looking up, a desperate attempt to latch onto the one glint of hope she was given. “Barley’s alive?”

Cassandra stared at her for a moment. “You named your cat Barley?”

“Well– she’s orange with darker stripes, yes? Like a field of barley at sundown.”

Cassandra shook her head slightly. “It’s a fair distance to your farm, but we can make it before nightfall if we eat now and go immediately after.”

“Heavens,” Moreen said in a hollow tone. “It is my farm now, isn’t it? At least until my brother comes back from war. If he comes back from war. I’m sorry, it’s just...”

“It’s okay. It’s a lot.”

Moreen nodded with a sigh. “Let’s eat and go. Let’s just... get things in order, at least.”

“Okay, then.” Cassandra looked at Sebastian. “Think you can whip up two servings of anything?”

“Give me five minutes,” Sebastian said confidently.

“And some provisions, as well, two people and a horse. A week’s worth?”

“Not a problem.”

“I knew there was a reason I kept coming here. Besides the stable, of course.” Cassandra grinned at Sebastian’s raised eyebrow. “How much?”

“Oh, on the house.” Sebastian raised a hand when Moreen tried to protest. “None of that. On the house. And I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” Moreen said tiredly.

Sebastian patted her arm consolingly, and gave Cassandra a deep, respectful nod. She inclined her head back at him, as much in response as it was in surrender before the observation he had made not a few days ago: that Cassandra’s method of finding something to do was based on how needed it was, not how glamorous or profitable or easily completed.

And what of it, Cassandra thought to herself in a tone as aggressive as if she were daring someone to have a problem with that. What, was she supposed to turn away someone who came up to her and asked her help, only hers and no one else’s? To turn her back on someone in danger, and pick a paying task instead, never mind that she still had enough coin for herself and for an emergency? Her father raised her better than that.

Sepulchral as the atmosphere was, the meal was completed quickly enough, and the satchel of more non-perishable foods was easily assembled within that time—hard cheese, travel bread, dried fruit, a sack of feed. Cassandra took Fidella out of the stable and motioned Moreen closer, only to find her just short of backing away and evidently daunted with the mare’s sheer bulk.

“You’ve never ridden horseback before?”

Moreen shook her head slowly. “We have a bullock cart. Had, at least. I don’t... know how to deal with horses.”

“Well, then it’s a good thing your first experience is going to be Fidella. Don’t be afraid, she’s very gentle.” Cassandra took her steed by the bitless bridle, more for show than to actually hold the mare still. “I’ll give you a boost into the saddle. Come on.”

She couldn’t help but think of Riccardo the halberdier and his own aversion to horses as she helped Moreen climb onto Fidella’s back, then followed, settling herself into place behind the farmer and reaching around her to take the reins. She was pulling Fidella around when felt Moreen stiffen, and followed her gaze to where she was focused on someone in the muddy streets—Carter, predictably, wild-eyed and with hair still mussed from Sigrid’s treatment of him.

Cassandra gave him a very mean smile, hoping to make the murderer angry enough to follow them out of town, then nudged Fidella into a trot towards Tyson farm. As soon as they passed the checkpoint at the edge of town again, she turned to Owl, seated on her shoulder.

“Keep an eye on that guy, would you?”

Hoot, Owl agreed easily, and took off into the sky.

“We’ll have an advanced warning now,” Cassandra said calmly. “Lean forward in the saddle a bit.”

“Um, okay?” Moreen tried to accommodate the request, even though she clearly had no idea what was expected of her.

“Think we can make it all the way before sundown?” Cassandra called out to the mare under them.

Fidella gave a confident little whinny, and dropped straight into a canter.

~*~

“I must confess, it eludes me why you’re so adamant about refusing him a place on the royal guard,” King Edmund said with a frown. “Hector is a very loyal and extremely capable man in his prime. It will not do to keep him idle anymore.”

“He’s also a violent sadist who only respects the rules when they let him be terrible to people, and putting him on the guard would just let him do that more often,” Eugene countered, frustration slipping into his tone. “If he gets patrol duty, Corona will be terrorized by its own police force instead of by the criminals. If he gets jail duty, we’ll start finding dead prisoners, and I know someone had insisted to abolish the death penalty—” he blew a kiss to Rapunzel, who pretended to catch it with a smile, “—after yours truly had narrowly escaped being hanged. If we make him an outrider, he’ll attack the first envoy of an allied kingdom he sees, and say that he thought they were a spy.”

“True enough that he may be...” King Edmund speared a brussel sprout with his fork as he considered his words. “Overzealous, at times. But he is a great knight, and I insist that he must not be cast aside any longer.”

“We will find a position for a man of his standing,” King Frederic promised. “One that will not, hopefully, encourage any of those more unfortunate tendencies.”

“I appreciate the declaration, but we have been searching for such a position for nearly three months now. It’s been long enough,” King Edmund said sternly.

“Maybe we’re looking at it the wrong way,” Rapunzel spoke up, and looked at Eugene as both her parents and his father turned to her. “What was Hector up to when we met him?”

“Killing us,” Eugene said dryly. “Riding a rhino. Destroying the caravan. Beating Cass into the ground. Shouting matches with Adira as they tried to kill each other. Which by the way, if they don’t stop demolishing every room or courtyard they’re in when yet another one of those breaks out between them, we’ll never complete renovations of the castle. And I think he was also up to unleashing something left behind by Zhan Tiri at the Great Tree, after Cass had pushed him off that cliff.”

Rapunzel gently set aside the guilt coming with the memory of what else had been done to Cass at the Great Tree, focusing again on the matter at hand instead. “And Adira said that he was tasked with guarding the Great Tree?”

“He was indeed,” King Edmund confirmed. “Both to stand watch at the edge of the Dark Kingdom, and to ward the foul powers of that place from any who would seek to use them. I’m sure you are aware that demon had a cultist following.”

“Yeah, we’ve met a few.” Eugene scowled at the memories.

“What if,” Rapunzel said slowly, “we asked Hector to map Herz Der Sonne’s tunnels again?”

Eugene stared at her for a moment. Then clapped his hands with a wide grin. “Sunshine, you are a genius.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow,” King Edmund turned his attention to her more fully.

“One of the Coronian kings, centuries ago, had created a system of underground tunnels to move his knights and supplies through during a war,” Rapunzel explained. “But the only existing map of those tunnels was destroyed not too long before the battle with Zhan Tiri, and even that map didn’t account for all the damage the tunnels had suffered through all these years, or for the many traps strewn all throughout them. The Great Tree was like a maze—the tunnels are like a maze. Maybe Hector would enjoy this kind of thing.”

“And! It gets him out of the castle!” Eugene exclaimed happily, and rolled his eyes at King Edmund’s withering look. “Oh come on, half the staff are terrified of him and the other half are dreaming of the good old days when Cassandra was the castle’s resident stormcloud person. Which by the way, was Hector abandoned by his mother as a baby, too? Because—”

“Do not make that comparison,” Rapunzel said sternly.

“Alright, that is unfair to Cass.”

Rapunzel turned to King Edmund again. “I don’t think Hector will be able to take his rhinoceros with him into the tunnels, though, not with how low the ceilings can be. Also, some of the traps I’ve seen in there have been pitfalls.”

“And how many times have you ventured into these trap-filled, incredibly dangerous places?” King Frederic asked pointedly.

Rapunzel smiled her best innocent smile at him. “Only as many as the duty of the Princess and the good of the kingdom demanded.”

Eugene choked quietly on his drink, watching the conversation play out from behind his goblet with glee.

“Hm,” was all that King Frederic said, as he looked unimpressed and negatively impressed at the same time.

“I believe this task of exploration and charting would fit Hector most profoundly, especially if coupled with the responsibility for disarming any traps that may be still functioning. Possibly also running out any creature to have taken up residence,” King Edmund declared with a rare smile. “I will inform him first thing in the morning. Let us begin preparations then.”

“Then it is settled,” Queen Arianna said with no small amount of relief. “Excellent bit of insight, Rapunzel.”

Rapunzel smiled, and let the conversation between the three monarchs at the table progress into discussing details, while she caught Faith’s eye and winked at her discreetly. The handmaiden, who was waiting the table along with Friedborg, fought to suppress a smile.

After all, it had been Faith who brought the staff’s misgivings about Hector to Rapunzel’s attention, even if it hadn’t been entirely intentional. And with this, it could genuinely be the best solution for everyone—a much-needed yet mortally difficult task left in the hands of a man capable in an equally mortal degree, keeping Hector out of the public eye, maintaining a friendly relationship with Eugene’s birth father, getting Hector and Adira to stop destroying the castle every time yet another argument got out of hand.

And on the subject of Adira, hadn’t she implied that she was only going to stay for as long as it took Xavier to make her a new sword?

Rapunzel frowned slowly. She didn’t know how long it took to make a sword—Cass would know, and she hadn’t ever thought to ask, nor had she ever considered that Cass wasn’t going to be at her side ready to weigh in or lend expertise, not until the Moonstone. But even so, she was pretty sure that making a single sword didn’t normally take three months.

She beckoned at Faith, and once the lady-in-waiting leaned down to her, she murmured, “Could you try to find Adira for me, please? I’d like to speak with her after dinner.”

An uncertain look passed through Faith’s face. Adira was notoriously impossible to get ahold of, even though no one had actually seen her leave the castle, not once in all these months. “I’ll do my best, your highness.”

“Thank you.” Rapunzel caught her mom looking at her with mild concern as the handmaiden stepped away with a bow and hurried off. “Nothing, I just remembered there was an errand I’d needed someone to run.”

Queen Arianna inclined her head in an acquiescent gesture. “I was curious if you could weigh in on another of today’s little mysteries, as well.”

Rapunzel sat up, interest sparked. “What’s going on?”

“Earlier today, the Kotoan ambassador had delivered a joint missive from the King of Koto and one of his Grand Inquisitors. It’s a thanks for an act performed by a member of our court—it says your knight-errant...?”

“Oh, that’s Cass,” Rapunzel said happily as she cut another bite off her slice of meatloaf.

There was a sudden and absolute silence at the table.

Rapunzel looked between her parents, and pulled the fork out of her mouth. “...Did I forget to tell you that I gave her my favour and named her knight-errant right before she left?”

“I believe it may have slipped your mind,” Queen Arianna said, a bit of exasperation breaking through her usual diplomatic facade. “It does, however, explain... much.”

“Sorry,” Rapunzel said earnestly, far from the usual sing-song tone of her past defensive apologies. “There was a lot going on, back then. Can I see the letter?”

Her mom nodded, and handed Rapunzel a small stack of gilded stationery—one small bundle of it still sealed. “Don’t open that one, it’s meant for some acquaintance Cassandra had made on that endeavour. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to pass it to that man, or even to her, though.”

“I’ll just give it to Owl along with my own letter when she writes me again,” Rapunzel said absent-mindedly as she unfolded the Kotoan missive. “Unto Their Majesties and Her Highness, blah blah blah, send salutations, yada yada yada... to express appreciation and gratitude for the sterling conduct of Her Highness’ knight-errant, whose actions prompted by nothing but chivalry and faithfulness to the alliances that bind our kingdoms together have returned the equipment of a fallen knight of the Tribunal Order into the hands of his brothers and sisters, and three treasures that had been gifted to Our venerable grandparents on the occasion of their wedding into Our vaults... huh.”

“Did Cass mention any of that?” Eugene asked with a frown. “I don’t remember her mentioning any of that.”

“No, but I think this might be what she meant when she wrote about turning a con artist’s own scheme against him,” Rapunzel said slowly.

Cass hadn’t mentioned that she made a friend already, either. But to be completely fair, there were more than a few things that Rapunzel hadn’t mentioned in her first return letter as well. Maybe they were both uncertain how to talk to each other, after everything. Maybe Cass was feeling awkward and trying to figure out where they stood now, too. There was nothing to do about it but wait for Owl again and see, Rapunzel told herself as confidently as she could, even though she already knew that it was going to gnaw at her anyway.

“A woman of few words, then,” King Edmund summarized with a hint of humour in his voice. “Though I must admit, the logic of granting your favour to a recently pardoned traitor escapes me.”

“She wasn’t a—!” Rapunzel clenched her fists, fingertips coming across the scarring across her palms, as she heard herself raise her voice. She had a tendency to take. Even the agency. And she was working to no longer let that tendency speak for her. “Zhan Tiri was the real enemy. Cassandra risked everything, gave everything—up to and including her life—to help defeat her. There’s no one else in the entire world I’d rather grant my favour to.”

King Edmund gave a little sideways nod at that, accepting but unconvinced. “That is certainly the kind way of looking at these matters, though I am unsure if it is the wise one.”

“Sometimes it’s wise to be kind.” Rapunzel indicated the letter. “And Cass is already doing Corona proud, even if her recent history with us has been rocky.”

“That’s my girl,” Eugene whispered aggressively from his end of the table, effectively beheading the conversation, and with the studious disregard of the others’ discomfort spelling out that he had done that entirely on purpose.

Queen Arianna cleared her throat subtly. “You are staying in contact with Cassandra, then?”

“Yes, she wrote, though I don’t know how long it’ll take her to write again,” Rapunzel admitted. “She’s somewhere along the border between Equis and Koto—or was at the time, at least.”

King Frederic frowned. “Relations with Equis are strained enough already. I hope she can remain discreet enough to avoid becoming another point of imagined provocation.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Eugene said with a dismissive wave of a hand. “That region is chock-full of mercenaries, bandits, deserters, and fugitives of every stripe. She’ll just be a fancy one among many. Well, somewhat fancy. I’ve seen fancier, of course, mainly in the mirror, but not exclusively there.”

Rapunzel perked up. “Oh, you’ve been to where she is?”

“Not for very long. There’s nothing but farmland for miles on end, and it rains the. Entire. Time. Unless it’s snowing, and you know how I feel about snow. Lots more opportunities to fight than to steal, too, and sellsword work was never my first choice for a line of employment.” Eugene cocked his head thoughtfully. “Actually, Cass might love it there.”

“The fighting part does sound pretty perfect for her,” Rapunzel agreed with a smile.

From there, the dinner progressed without further arguments or revelations, the conversation tactfully steered back to domestic matters of lesser importance. And once the meal was done, with the monarchs and their heirs retiring for the night or heading back to their study rooms for a last bit of work before resting, Rapunzel found Faith leaning against the wall and breathing heavily right outside of the private dining room.

“West drilling courtyard,” the handmaiden panted before Rapunzel could ask.

“Oh, thank you, you’re the best. Get some rest and I’ll see you in the morning?”

Faith nodded, a look of gratitude for the early night on her face. “As you say, your highness.”

“Good night!” Rapunzel chirped, and bounded down the corridor to the west wing without waiting. She didn’t have to worry about making noise, not with still running barefoot, and soon enough she slowed down into a walk again, the initial burst of excitement exhausted and replaced with a mixture of uncertainty and worry as she remembered why she had wanted to see Adira in the first place.

And that, in turn, evaporated the second she saw the old warrior: stripped down to light exercise garb and practicing with an oddly brass-coloured sword profiled very much like the Shadow Blade had been, but with an actual proper blade rather than a solid chunk of unbreakable crystal. She moved with the grace of a dancer, flawlessly executing sets of movements as she advanced across the courtyard in a circular pattern—but still very much putting her bulk and momentum behind each and every next one of those movements, the near-constant modulated whoosh of sliced air turning the weapon and the warrior herself into a two-toned wind instrument, an Aeolian harp set out beneath the stars, the light of the last-quarter moon blocked by the mass of the castle and left to rise unnoticed across the opposite half of the sky.

Another pass around the courtyard, and Rapunzel noticed the focused expression on Adira’s face break into mild surprise. The sword was lowered, the combat stance dropped, and the well-worn thick jacket picked up from its resting place along the courtyard’s flagstones as Adira sheathed her blade and walked up towards the princess. “Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping at this hour?”

“I wanted to talk to you for a bit before bed, if that’s okay. And– sorry, I didn’t mean to stare,” Rapunzel admitted.

Adira raised her eyebrows with a little grin. “Oh, you may look, just not touch. It’s certainly what your royal guard has been doing.”

Rapunzel looked into the nearby lit windows—a portion of the guard barracks, she knew—and thought she noticed a few immediately retreating faces. “I guess they find you... inspiring?”

“That is certainly a word for it,” Adira laughed as she tied her jacket closed. “If you wish to speak, come take a walk with me. Nothing good comes from standing in the cold at my age.”

“Right, of course.” Rapunzel paused for a moment as a belated realization hit her. “You know, I don’t think we’ve ever asked how old you actually are.”

“You haven’t,” Adira said airily, and chuckled at Rapunzel’s inquisitive look. “Fifty-four. It was never important, I don’t think. What is it that you needed of me?”

“Oh. Right. Well,” Rapunzel hesitated, eyeing the weapon Adira had sheathed at her back. “I guess I just wanted to ask when you were planning on leaving?”

Adira gave her a longer look. “I have no plans to leave. Unless there’s a matter you absolutely cannot entrust to anyone else in your entire kingdom, that is.”

“But I thought– didn’t you say that you were only waiting for having a new sword made? And—” Rapunzel gestured to the weapon. “I can see that it’s ready.”

“It’s been ready for weeks. And while, yes, that had been the initial idea, it was also before I acknowledged how much you needed help—serious help—and made it my business to provide some of it,” Adira said gently. “It would not do to open your eyes to how mired you are in your own mistakes without extending a hand for you to grab onto and pull yourself out. I am not leaving, not until you or King Edmund send me away.”

“Oh. Okay.” Rapunzel breathed out a deep sigh of relief. “Thank you. It really means a lot. And I do really need your help.”

“Rest assured that my motivations are far from selfless.” Adira folded her arms behind her back as her voice dropped into her usual focused tone. “I lacked a sense of purpose after the Moonstone and the Sundrop were expelled from the world together, and aiding you was as good a pastime as any. Besides, it’s simply very nice to feel needed, and to have comfortable accommodations for once.”

“But this is good,” Rapunzel said impulsively. “It’s more balanced, more equal this way. We both get something we needed and everyone’s happy.”

Adira watched her for a moment, a little smile about her lips. “You’ve been thinking about matters of mutual gain for a while, I see.”

“I’ve been trying,” Rapunzel admitted. “And, I know this might just be the tower speaking, because I’ve spent so long dreaming of such things, but... don’t you want to go out into the world, find adventure, see new places and meet new people?”

The old warrior gave a genuine laugh. “After a quarter century of trying to track down a legend, I think I’m all adventured out.”

“What about love?” Rapunzel hedged.

Adira shook her head. “Love is a very sad affair for me, princess.”

Rapunzel paused at that, taken aback. “How can love be a sad thing?”

In response, Adira lifted the back of her right hand to face Rapunzel with the Brotherhood’s mark: three black rocks against the outline of a full moon. “When you have dedicated yourself—your mind and your body, your heart and your soul, and your life and your death—to a person or a cause, what have you left to give to a loved one?”

There wasn’t an uplifting answer to that, Rapunzel realized slowly. There was only one answer: that there was nothing left to give—and that, truly, would make loving someone an incredibly sad thing. And even as she drew a breath to say that the war was over, the oaths were fulfilled, and there was nothing to be so beholden to anymore, the words died on her tongue, and she gave the old warrior beside her a keener look.

“You were ready to die, weren’t you?”

“Every day of the twenty-five years I spent searching for the Sundrop,” Adira confirmed calmly.

“Is that why you were acting like—” Rapunzel made a vague gesture with her hands. “Well, like you were? Abrasive and borderline mocking and purposefully cryptic enough to drive half of us insane? And why you refused to learn anyone’s names, too? You didn’t want to get attached, or for anyone to get attached to you. You were making sure no one would miss you once you were gone.”

There was a brief silence, during which Adira looked away for a moment, before she inclined her head slightly. “You are growing very astute.”

“So you would have just– if the Sundrop was still a flower, you would’ve just put them back together yourself,” Rapunzel said with dismay, remembering the resulting explosion when the stones had reunited, how it had thrown her off her feet, how it had taken Cassandra’s life, how there had been nothing left at all of Zhan Tiri’s enormous demonic form.

“That is precisely what I was planning to do.” Adira turned her head to give Rapunzel a long look, folding her hands behind her again. “I admit I hadn’t been prepared for the Sundrop to be a person... but it didn’t change much.”

“So, if Cass hadn’t grabbed the Moonstone?” Rapunzel asked slowly.

“I would have sacrificed you,” Adira said firmly, looking her straight in the eye, “and mourned afterwards.”

It was Rapunzel’s turn to look away at that. “...You know this means Cass was right about you from the start.”

“Of course she was right about me,” Adira said with a raised eyebrow, as if surprised that the matter had been in question at all. “Like recognizes like, and Shorthair knows loyalty of the same magnitude as I do. It’s simply that she found the only answer other than my own to the question of 'what have you left to give to a loved one', and fell in love with the one she was sworn to.”

Rapunzel sighed, grateful to the late hour’s darkness for hiding the heat that rose to her cheeks at that. “Well, we know how that story ended.”

“I wouldn’t say so. I’d say no one knows how that story ends, because it hasn’t ended yet,” Adira pointed out. “She still loves you, does she not?”

“Yes. Somehow. Even after all that. And I still love her, too.”

“Then that is the future for you to work towards,” Adira told her. “A good thought to go to sleep with, hm?”

“A very good thought.” Rapunzel smiled. Then hesitated. “May I hold your hand?”

Adira cocked her head with a quizzical expression. “Is this the moment you would usually tackle another person in a bear hug?”

Rapunzel couldn’t help a laugh. “It’s rapidly approaching that moment, yes. But I know you don’t like being touched, so... only your hand, and only if it’s okay to?”

The old warrior beside her chuckled, and came to a halt as she unfolded her arms from behind her back once more. “You may hold my hand. Briefly.”

“Thank you.” Rapunzel took Adira’s left hand into her right. She pondered at the coarse, scarred-up, weathered palm alongside her own for a moment, at the way Adira’s fingers closed around her hand in return, at the barely noticeable stiffening of the old warrior’s shoulders as she braced herself for the touch. “Thank you for talking to me tonight. Thank you for everything. And, I want you to know that I’m glad you didn’t have to die after all. I’m glad you’re here.”

Adira studied her for a moment before nodding. “I’m glad to be here.”

“That’s good to hear.” Rapunzel released Adira’s hand, keeping in mind the condition of 'briefly'. “Oh, I almost forgot: Hector will be leaving soon. We found something for him to do, and it’s a bit of a longer project.”

She watched perhaps the broadest grin she’d ever seen blooming on Adira’s face. “Now that is an excellent thought to go to sleep with.”

~*~

“Oh, heavens.” Moreen coughed when they were close enough to Tyson farm to smell it.

“I know,” Cassandra said in a strained tone.

They had been caught in more rain along the way, though mercifully not of the frozen variety. And though Fidella had slowly started showing signs of exhaustion, somewhere two-thirds of the way there, she paced herself well with interspersing the canter with bursts of a trot, weighing her speed against the distance. The last dregs of dusk’s dim light were still illuminating the sky when Fidella entered the muddy courtyard between buildings; Cassandra dismounted first, and helped Moreen slide off the saddle as well rather than fall from it, then motioned her towards the barn.

“I left them in there for now. It’s not, uh... it’s not pretty.”

Moreen nodded, setting her jaw as she braced herself. “Can you give me a minute?”

“I’ll wait here.” Cassandra watched the farmer go, then turned to Fidella and lowered her voice a little. “There’s a lot of work to be done in this place, and it might take a fair bit of time. Are you okay with that?”

Snort, Fidella confirmed, and put her nose to Cassandra’s forehead for a moment.

“You hold that thought until after I’ve done something to be proud of, here.” Cassandra stroked the mare’s neck. “But thanks.”

Fidella gave a pointed look around, as if to indicate the things Cassandra has been doing here already. Cassandra thought for a moment, but whatever she had planned to ask next was left forgotten as she noticed Moreen exiting the barn on shaky legs, and rushed over to make sure she didn’t collapse.

“You weren’t wrong,” Moreen said weakly as she leaned against the offered arm. “It’s not pretty.”

“Are you okay?”

“No. No, I’m really not. But it’s probably best to get inside and... and handle all that in the morning.”

“Come on, then.” Cassandra started leading the farmer, no less devastated than her livelihood, towards the house. “Do you mind if I take Fidella inside, as well? The barn is really no place to stay at the moment.”

“No, that’s okay.”

The moment they pulled the door open, a frantic meow came, and Cassandra left Moreen to gather up Barley the cat in her arms—and Barley to wiggle free, rub her head against Moreen’s hands and knees and anywhere else she could reach, and continue meowing and purring all the while. At least this was a good thing, Cassandra thought as she led Fidella in and shut the door, and busied herself with starting a fire in the hearth and putting the water on to make their evening meal a warm one. She was halfway through grooming Fidella when Moreen had recovered enough to help, although Barley protested immediately and began following her around, until Moreen picked the cat up and draped her across a shoulder. After barring the door for the night, Cassandra fed Fidella from the sack, and sat with Moreen to eat as well.

“Isn’t your bird coming back?” Moreen asked, scratching the top of Barley’s head with one hand, the cat curled comfortably in her lap.

“Owl is following Carter. And Carter won’t make it all the way to here until sometime around midday tomorrow, at the earliest, even if he walks overnight,” Cassandra said calmly. “He’ll break away and warn us when it’s time.”

“Um. Okay.”

Cassandra looked up at the uncertain tone of that. “It’s going to be fine. Don’t worry.”

“If you say so, it’s just that this—” Moreen picked the cat up for emphasis, drawing a startled little purr, “—is all there’s left. Everything else is gone. I can’t work the farm myself. I don’t have the coin to buy replacement livestock, especially not right before winter. Even if I could hire enough hands to make ends meet, I’m afraid they’d hurt me and take what they can for themselves. If I sell the farm, my brother’s home and my parents’ grave will be someone else’s to do with as they please, and I can’t stand that. If I stay here, I’m going to starve or freeze to death over winter, or worse if soldiers or some other bandits come.”

“How does selling land even work in Equis?” Cassandra asked with a frown. “I know Koto tends to document everything, but I don’t really know much about Equisian law.”

Moreen gave a little sideways nod. “Well, I am a citizen of Koto by birth.”

“You are?”

“Yes, by land and by blood—I was born when the Bayards were still in power, and my mother... was... a citizen as well.”

“That’ll make everything easier. Where do you keep documents?”

Moreen looked at her carefully. “I thought you were from Corona.”

“I am, it was just required of me to know at least the basics of culture and custom and law and such things of the other allied kingdoms as well.” Cassandra tilted her head to the side as she took in the newly-cautious expression on the bereaved farmer’s face. “I’ll only help if you want me to. If you don’t, that’s fine as well. But check if the documents are still where they’re supposed to be, at least, or if Carter took them.”

That gave Moreen pause, and she sat back on the bench a little, busying herself with scratching behind Barley’s ears. “That’s true. And I do want your help, and I’m grateful for it. You’ve done nothing to make me doubt you.”

“It’s okay. It hurts no one to be careful.”

Moreen nodded, and gently set the cat aside. Cassandra didn’t watch her rummage through one of the wooden chests, feeding a bit of meat from her stew to Barley instead, but she did turn at a grunt of exertion when Moreen heaved a metal cassette from under a stack of old clothes and blankets within the chest, then came over again and laid the flat strongbox on the table before opening it. The paper inside was yellowed with age, the ink across it faded somewhat, but still very much legible, and each document did bear the seal of a Kotoan magistrate indeed.

Moreen quickly counted the pages. “I don’t think anything’s missing, thank heavens.”

“May I?” Cassandra waited for a nod before she set her food aside and wiped her still-gloved fingers by habit, then started leafing through.

A summons for service in the Kotoan army, for one person of capable age from the household. A birth certificate and proof of citizenship, for Moreen Tyson. The same, for Roderick Tyson. A marriage certificate, of Ronan Tyson and Annabelle Martre. Another summons, this time for court proceedings; another one, for the army again, if noticeably more dated. More birth certificates of Kotoan citizens, interspersed with death certificates, each under the name Martre—and underneath all that, a three-page land grant for a Victor Martre, stamped with the seal of House Bayard as well as that of the magistrate.

Cassandra gently tapped the document with one finger. “This will be respected in any legitimate Kotoan court of law. I understand that you want to leave? Take all of these with you, and guard them with your life. No matter how long you’re gone from here, if you decide to come back and someone has moved in on the farm, these are ironclad proof that the land is yours and your brother’s—at least if the region is under Kotoan control when you return. And if you think the magistrate is acting suspiciously, as a citizen of Koto you have the right to demand that a knight of the Tribunal Order arbitrates the dispute. Though that’s far more likely to result in a harsh and thoroughly letter-of-law ruling, from what I’ve read.”

“That does all hinge on who’s in power here, doesn’t it,” Moreen said quietly.

“It does. I’m not familiar with laws of Equis, but from what I’ve seen of those on the royal Equisian payroll recently, I don’t think any lawmasters would consider another kingdom’s legal documents binding in a court case, not without being forced to somehow.” Cassandra laid the papers in the open strongbox again. “What do you want to do, from now on? Because that’s what everything else depends on.”

“I want to leave. I have to, or I won’t survive.” Moreen stroked a hand down Barley’s back again. “But I can’t cart her around with myself if I don’t even know I’ll have anywhere to live. And it’s not like I have the coin to travel, either. I’ll need to sell everything I can’t take with myself, and give away everything I can’t sell. And burn or bury the cattle and the chickens, because the state this place is in now, this is how plagues happen. After that, I don’t know. I don’t even know where to go.”

“It’s a good enough start,” Cassandra relented. “You have time to figure it out, especially with how much there is to do. Let’s take things one step at a time.”

And the first step for doing anything was to sleep, if they were to have the strength for tomorrow. Cassandra retained her last night’s spot, bedroll set out near the hearth, while Moreen took the ladder up to the attic area in the far end of the building. Waking up several times overnight for a moment to the sounds of Barley hunting mice, Cassandra thought she also heard the farmer crying silently, and pulled her blanket overhead in a helpless gesture.

Morning came, and with it the perspective of burying the second family Cassandra had found dead in this region. After burdening Fidella with a ladder, two shovels, and as many buckets as they could find, they began pulling the makeshift sled laden with enshrouded remains towards a spot that Moreen was leading them to.

“My parents got married there,” she had said of it as they went, her voice strained as she tried not to look behind herself at the sled. “It’s only right to let them be buried there, as well.”

They dug in turns, and deep as they could, knowing there was nothing heavy to place over the grave, nowhere to bring enough stones from to pile up a cairn; the ditch itself had to be deep enough to prevent carrion eaters from desecrating the Tysons’ bodies any further. And as the pile of dredged up earth rose, the sun advanced across the sky—and right as it was to crest into the zenith, there was a very familiar hoot!, and Cassandra looked up to see Owl landing atop Fidella’s saddle.

“He walked overnight, then?”

Hoot, Owl confirmed.

“Good.” Cassandra dusted her hands off, hoping to get some of the soil off the gloves, and set the shovel aside in favour of slinging her sword around her back, hilt over the right shoulder.

It would be very good to know whether she could still use the sword right-handed, anyway.

Carter’s silhouette was rising quickly through the mist—too thick to fully burn off even so close to midday—as he spotted them even in the fog and turned sharply from approaching the farmhouse to walking towards them. Cassandra whistled at him sharply through her teeth, and tossed her head at him, arms crossed, hoping to spark adversity and keep him focused on herself. Judging from how he immediately pulled out a knife at her, it worked.

“I told you to be smart about this. You could’ve been rich,” the farmhand spat towards her. “Now you’ll just be dead.”

“Your idea of smart is remarkably stupid,” Cassandra said coldly.

Moreen stepped forward from where she was, standing beside Cassandra now, her face pale but her jaw set and her eyes determined. “You killed my parents, didn’t you?”

“I fought for our happiness! They stood in the way, and didn’t listen, so I had to fight for our future together!” Carter screamed at her, then gestured furiously at Cassandra. “Now she’s in the way, too!”

“What the fuck are you on about?” Moreen’s voice trembled with a mixture of shock and revulsion.

“Your father refused me your hand in marriage! Your mother laughed at me even though I did them the courtesy of asking! They wanted to separate us, and they got what they deserved for it,” Carter took a step forward, pointing a finger at the Tysons’ daughter aggressively. “Now come with me, and we’ll be happy. Don’t let that Coronian stand between us, too!”

“I’m going to enjoy this,” Cassandra said quietly, an ice-cold murderous calm settling over her.

“I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last person alive, and that was before you murdered my family and turned my home into a ruin!” Moreen roared back at the farmhand. “There was never a chance you had with me! I will go nowhere with you, and you’re going to pay for what you’ve done!”

The fervent, desperate look on Carter’s face fell into something far more sinister. “Happy or no, you’re coming with me. This marriage, this farm, I’ve earned this. I’ve been working my ass off for years to earn this! I gave you a chance, and you throw it back in my face—!”

Cassandra turned her head toward Moreen, without taking her eyes off the farmhand. “Stay behind me.”

“Get out of my way, or I’ll clear you off it myself!” Carter screamed at her.

Cassandra drew her sword. “Then come on and clear me.”

It’s been a while since Cassandra fought in the position of a bodyguard, not a lone-wolf warrior, she mused as she dropped the knife from Carter’s hand with a single hit that severed the sinews in his forearm. Or since she fought to disable, rather than kill immediately, she mused as she reversed the grip on her sword and slammed her weapon’s hilt into Carter’s jaw with the force of a right hook driven from the hips behind it. It was good to flex those reflexes again, and find they hadn’t dulled, she admitted to herself as she swept his knees from under him and pinned him to the ground before the thud of his fall echoed through, wrenched his arms behind his back, and looked up at Moreen.

“Do you have anything left to say to him?”

“I hope the heavens’ embrace boils the flesh off your bones and never stops rending your rotten soul apart.” Moreen looked up at Cassandra then, both of them ignoring the murderer’s curses and threats. “Nothing more.”

“Then turn around, please.”

“No. I think I’d rather watch.”

Cassandra inclined her head, yanked at Carter’s hair, and slit his throat to drown the yellowed grasses in bright, pouring red. After cleaning and sheathing her blade, she gave Moreen a scrutinizing look, finding her a little paler than before watching a man killed, but a lot calmer than before watching the murderer of her parents and wannabe-tormentor of herself removed from her life, for good.

“That’s that, then.”

“Just about.” Cassandra rolled the still-warm corpse around and started turning out Carter’s pockets. “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

“You make it– you make this look easy.” Moreen finally looked away. “Like you always know what to do. How do you do that?”

“I’ve been trained of this kind of thing pretty extensively,” Cassandra said calmly as she studied a crumpled piece of paper. A complex, handwritten rebus, it looked like. She handed it to the farmer. “Does this look familiar at all?”

Moreen took it, and smoothed it out with a frown. “It’s my dad’s drawings. The tree and the pile of stones are that way,” she pointed off to the west, where the shadow of a tree did loom through the mist, “and under the stones there’s a... bird nest full of eggs? There aren’t going to be any eggs, not this time of year.”

“Let’s check it out after we’re done here.” Cassandra pocketed a half-ration of unidentifiable jerky and defaced a wooden charm with her boot knife before leaving Carter’s body be. “I’m in half a mind to just leave him here.”

Moreen shook her head, the hard look back in her eyes. “Bury him at my parents’ feet.”

And there was poetry in that, Cassandra had to admit as they finished digging up the grave, deposited the two sets of enshrouded remains inside it along with the sled, and heaped their murderer’s corpse in at the shorter side of the ditch without care for how he fell, only that he fell. She had certainly read of the glorious funerals of warriors, with the shattered weapons of the foes they slew before succumbing heaped at their feet as well.

There was significantly less glory to be found in putting her hands at the small of her back to stretch, then shovelling the overturned soil back into the grave. But the stories of warriors and glory never talked about those who outlived the heroic dead, unless it was to speak of avengers or of a new generation of heroic soon-to-be dead. Nor did they talk about those who had to bear double the work on their shoulders now that those who used to work beside them had chosen to burn bright and burn out, rather than remain at candle-dim for long enough to light a dozen candles more. There wasn’t a way to destroy darkness by striking it with spears and swords, not in the long run. Nothing worth doing was that simple or quick. But there was a way to destroy darkness by kindling and sheltering light. A thankless and easily-overlooked task, certainly. But so was digging a grave. So was fetching herbs for a clinic. So was giving a ghost her name back. And they had all been necessary.

Glory, Cassandra was beginning to feel, seemed to tend towards overrated.

“May the earth be light to them,” she said over the grave, as she had heard the team burying the Richters say.

“May the earth be light to them.” Moreen wiped at her cheeks, smearing soil across her face. “Except Carter. I hope he chokes on the earth for all eternity.”

They walked towards the tree and the heap of stones from the stolen puzzle map after that, Fidella following suit and Owl still perched atop the saddle. With Moreen’s instructions off reading her father’s rebus, Cassandra levered one of the flatter rocks up with a shovel to push it aside, and uncovered a small empty space in the middle of the pile—and true enough, there was an old bird nest hidden there, spiders scurrying away from the light and cold between what did look like eggs. Or eggshells, rather. Chicken eggshells, collected and dried after the eggs had been cracked and presumably eaten, wedged back together in two or three layers each. They were old, however—old enough that when Cassandra experimentally picked one up, it came apart in her fingers, revealing a small load of silver and gold jewellery. She extended them to Moreen in an open hand.

“Just a guess, but was your father a mercenary in the war?”

“Yes, I- yes, he was,” Moreen said weakly as she stared in shock. “I had no idea.”

Cassandra brushed the crumbled eggshell out of her palm and put the jewellery in Moreen’s hand. “Well, now you can pay for a place to stay in any settlement with a pawnbroker.”

And among the half-dozen 'eggs', each had been loaded with such baubles—earrings, pendants, necklace chains, wedding bands, in one case even a ring set with a large gemstone. That one Cassandra studied more carefully, but was relieved to find no crest carved in the jewel, no engravings across the band; it was simply a very fine trinket, not a signet or a mark of station.

The remains of the swiftly receding day were spent on gathering up firewood, with the farmhouse’s lingering supply having been exhausted through the two nights of keeping the hearth burning throughout. And after Moreen had turned in for the night, the exhaustion of physical effort and emotional trials of the day catching up to her, Cassandra found herself faced with a very insistent Owl, tugging the scroll case backpack towards her across the freshly swept floor.

Cassandra sighed. “I’ve not forgotten, alright?”

Hoot, Owl said firmly.

“I know this is looking like a longer—”

Hoot, Owl continued in the same adamant tone.

“No, I won’t get myself hurt again the moment you’re off like last time.”

Hoot, Owl said, and tapped a talon against the backpack.

“You said you’d stay longer this time,” Cassandra told him quietly.

Hoot, Owl reminded.

“You don’t have to tell me how to time things with the—” Cassandra bit her tongue. Then pinched the bridge of her recently-healed nose, and looked at Owl again. “Promise me next time you’ll actually stay longer, 'best circumstances' or no.”

Hoot, Owl promised.

“Fine.” Cassandra took Rapunzel’s letter and paintings out of the scroll case, and pulled out her small scribing kit as well. Then she considered the backpack, and winced as she gathered up ash from the hearth to thoroughly smear the purple-and-golden fabric with. “...Sorry, Raps.”

For the longest time, she felt, she sat at the Tysons’ table, reading Rapunzel’s letter again, and staring at the disdainfully blank sheet of paper next to it. But when the words finally came, it felt almost like an overturned bottle had been unstoppered, and though the last thing Cassandra could ever be was a poet, she thought it wasn’t too bad a reply as she read it over. Then she read it over again, and had to physically put the quill away in order to stop herself from crossing whole sentences out. Her withered hand ached enough already—she was not about to rewrite all that again.

Hoot, Owl said quietly as he watched her struggle.

“Not another word.” Cassandra packed his backpack, and snapped it around him with an eyeroll as he spread his wings to present himself in an exaggerated fashion. “There. Come back soon. I’ll miss you. I’m going to sleep.”

Owl tugged gently on the curled lock of hair over her forehead with his beak as she quietly unbarred the door and opened it to let him outside. A well-practiced motion of boosting him into the sky, and Cassandra watched him go until he disappeared between the stars.

She glanced back at the farmhouse. Then bundled her too-light cloak around herself and went on a walk. Before too long, she found herself standing before the Tysons’ fresh grave, without having even intended to—but intentions or not, she supposed it would be awkward without doing anything at all, so she drew her sword for a moment to salute with it. A gust of wind whispered past her, and Cassandra thought she felt a hand in her hair, ice-cold and gone as quickly as it came. She lifted her shoulders to suppress a shiver, jaws clenched to stop her teeth from chattering, and went back inside to actually do what she had said, and sleep.