Flare packed up the camp. I stood, watching the mountains. They did not move. Their peaks reached up to touch the stars. Was that why? Would you get too close to the sky? Would the stars take you?
“Come on,” Flare said.
We didn’t walk through the town. I thanked Flare silently for that. Instead, our path led us through a small copse of trees. I stepped carefully, avoiding their roots, looking down at my feet. I could feel the trees standing watch around me, blocking the outside out. The world was a little smaller while we passed through. I breathed.
Then we were out, cutting around the town, angling for the mountains. Flare didn’t speak. It was a normal thing, to walk in silence, and for the most part that was fine with me. I could look around and wonder at the landscape, at the stars and the stones and the stillness. The former village intruded here, though, to the point where I wished there was something else I could focus on besides the landscape.
Flare’s lamp was curious. There were no charms carved into it, but the lantern itself also didn’t appear to be made in a conventional style. Instead of straight, functional lines the lantern’s iron was made of whorls. It was asymmetric, solidifying in a strange half-cocked shape that made me think that it could never rest on a table without falling over. Flare carried it easily enough, though. For all the adornment, very little functionality had been sacrificed.
There weren’t many more thoughts that emerged about the lantern, but I continued to look at it regardless. To watch it swing lightly to and fro in Flare’s hand. To watch the light play over the ground. Then my eyes travelled away for a moment, and spotted a frozen house in the distance, and skittered back to the safety of the lantern.
Flare stopped, and I nearly bumped into her. She raised the lantern, though it didn’t help the light travel any further, and gazed into the trees. There was movement between them. Something large, ambling towards us.
“What is it?” I asked.
Flare didn’t respond.
“Should we run?” I asked.
Flare didn’t respond.
“Do you know what to do?” I asked.
Flare didn’t respond. The lumbering shape grew nearer, silhouette made indistinct by branches and ice and fickle starlight. I tensed, my muscles starting to groan. They still ached from Crownsbreak. Sleep helped, but it didn’t fix things entirely. I wasn’t ready to run, and there was nowhere to go besides. Flare was the one who held the lantern, Flare was the one who held the only thing capable of staving off the cold. If I ran out of the circle of light, I would die.
The shape was large, and rounded. I could make out more details, now that it was growing close. I could see fur, thick fur, fur coated with frost and streaked through by icicles. Fur that covered something three or four heads taller than I was. Something with no obvious head of its own, just a large, hulking body, rounded at the top and sloping downwards.
There were arms, I could see now. Huge arms, pushing branches out of the way with such force they shattered. Hands at the end, big enough that one could wrap fully around my torso and the other could effortlessly crush my skull. The creature’s legs, if it had any, were in shadow.
It moved closer, and I could see its eyes. Glowing blue beads, like stars as cold as the world around us, tucked into a dark fold in the fur between the shoulders of the creature. They locked onto Flare’s lantern.
It moved within reach of Flare. Flare stood her ground. “Hello, Solange,” Flare said.
The hulking creature said, “Flare!” The hulking creature’s voice sounded almost bubbly, the voice of the irrepressibly cheerful. She also sounded particularly happy to see Flare.
“I’m glad to see you’re alright,” Flare said, and Solange took another step further. In the witch-stone’s light, as the ice vanished from the furs, I could see that they were an extremely thick coat. There were a few seams I could see, here and there, and the barest telltale glimmer of light shone from inside them.
“Back at you, Flare! I was worried you wouldn’t come back,” Solange said. “Here, here, I don’t have my old house anymore but I can at least bring you back to where I’m staying now.”
Flare nodded, and to my surprise I could see the barest touch of a smile on her face. Then Solange said, “Oh, and who’s this? I thought you said dragging someone after you through the ice–”
“She’s my apprentice,” Flare cut her off shortly.
“I’m Grace,” I said.
“Good to meet you, Grace,” Solange said. “Now let’s get you two out of the cold. Right this way!”
Solange began to stomp her way back through the forest away from us. Flare took one step forwards. Then she stopped, and said, “I’m sorry about Liar’s Mint.”
Solange paused for a moment, her fur-clad foot crunching through a tree root as she leaned heavily on it. The barest bit of shoulder-slumping was visible through her coat. Then she said, “It is what it is, you know?” and kept on walking.
Flare began to follow her, and I followed Flare. Nobody said anything. Discomfort drifted lazily in the air. There was a lot of crunched ice and broken tree branches before Solange finally said, “So, I haven’t heard about what you’ve been up to, lately. I’m excited to hear where you’ve been, what you’ve seen. So much world out there, you know?”
Flare didn’t say anything, but the way she didn’t say it was comfortable, and Solange could hear that. She kept talking. The words began to slide off my ears, but they didn’t need to be heard to fill the silence.