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Asta Kieding stood gripping the windowsill, face impassive even as her foot tap-tap-tapped against the stone floor. Beyond her little window, the snowstorm raged on, a roaring beast that clawed at the Keep as if it could tear away the mountain itself. She couldn't see more than a few inches outside; the world had been reduced to a never-ending wall of white.
She hated snow. It was pretty enough to look at – when it wasn't so thick she couldn't see her hand in front of her face – but as soon as she stepped outside, felt the soft crunch beneath her boots and knew her toes would be numb in a few moments, knew the water would always somehow manage to seep through her gloves, all the beauty was gone for her. She couldn't help it; she had always been that way. Her mother had always said Asta had more of her father's blood, that she would have been more at home in the open, sweeping beaches of Hestil than the cold, brutal climate of Aprye.
Leanne called her mad for it.
A fresh flurry of snow attacked her window, and Asta's heart lurched. However much her friend loved the snow, she doubted that the blizzard could be a comfort to anyone.
Her foot tap-tap-tapped faster.
"Pining, are you?" Said a voice from the doorway.
She scowled. "Haven't you ever heard of knocking?"
"When's the last time you knocked before barging into my room?"
Her brother Damon sauntered in and came to a stop beside her, resting his elbows on the sill. His brown eyes were bright with amusement, though the smile on his face was forced and stiff.
The window rattled in its frame, and she clenched her jaw. Damon dropped the false smile.
"Tell me what's wrong."
She said nothing. The only sound was the howling of the wind outside and the incessant tap-tap-tap of her foot.
She sounded like a slighted dinner host, and that, more than anything, was what filled her with sudden fury.
"They're late!" She cried, bringing her hand down with a whap on the sill. "They could be dead already, for all we know! And how the hell is a search party going to find them in this?"
"Hey," her brother said gently, "I'm sure they're fine – "
The words were out before she could stop them, and she bit her lip, memories of her oldest brother's crippled leg prowling through her mind.
Damon sighed, dragging his hands through his black hair. "Micah was... different. You know that."
She nodded, wringing her hands, though her foot tap-tap-tapped more urgently than ever.
It was the night of two years ago all over again, when she'd paced and paced for hours on end, biting her nails to stubs while she waited for her brother to come home.
Damon seemed to be thinking the same thing, for his face softened and he gently took her by the shoulders. "I made it, didn't I?"
"And you looked ready to piss yourself with fear by the time I got back, so you must have more faith in Leanne and Basil than you did in me."
She let out a cry of indignation and punched him in the arm. Her brother laughed, clutching the bruise, and she fought against the smile that tried to rise to her lips.
"Come on, Skiff," he said, grinning as he ruffled her hair. "Let's eat."
The mess hall was an almighty swell of noise made up of the clatter of forks against plates, the scraping of chairs on the stone floor and the ever-present buzz of chatter that crowned it all. After nearly three years at Hunter's Keep, Asta could read the noise like an open book. Some days it was full of raucous laughter and bawdy songs; other days it was quieter, the diners barely drowning out the crackling of the hearth fires.
Tonight, the hall was a low hum of noise that had fear once again curling in her gut. She fisted her hands in the folds of her black novice's cloak and fought the urge to run from the room.
"You alright?" Damon asked.
She would not flee like a frightened hare. She would stay, and if – when – her friends returned, she would cheer with the others and curse herself for being such a fool.
She lifted her chin a fraction. "I'm fine."
The words tasted foul, but she forced herself to believe them. Maybe, if she could believe it, it might actually come true.
They crossed to the side of the room, where great bubbling pots of stew and loaves of hot, crusty bread were waiting. Asta's stomach growled as the steam brushed her face and filled her nose. Determined not to let her worry spoil it, she grabbed the ladle and began to fill her bowl.
"I'm going to miss this," she said with a sigh. The snowstorm was only a precursor for what was to come once winter truly arrived. Soon, the wagonfuls of grain and meat and fish would stop, and they would be eating out of their stores and whatever the mountains had to offer. While they might find the occasional deer, most would have headed towards the southern side of the mountains, seeking warmer weather – where no human was stupid or desperate enough to go.
Then again, a human – however sane – could only eat so much snow fox and stringy wolf meat before they tired of it. They rarely resorted to eating the horses; hardy and huge, specially bred for the mountain environment, the horses were more valuable than their weight in gold.
Perhaps this would be the year that the hunters finally decided to brave the monstrous fey found on the other side of the mountains – and nearly everywhere else, aside from Hestil and a few scattered islands.
She found a spot at one of the stone tables, and Damon took a seat across from her. Ravenous, Asta shovelled stew into her mouth, determined to enjoy this bit of good meat, even if she was still so worried it would be a wonder if she managed to keep it all down.
"Gods, Devan must have pushed you at training today," Damon said, slightly incredulously, as she polished off her bowl and reached for a loaf of bread, breaking the still-hot crust and wiping up the gravy left behind.
She gave a noncommittal grunt. The truth was she'd been too riled and nervous to eat earlier.
"Mother would kill you if you ate like that at home," he said, arching an eyebrow.
"Good thing mother's not here, then."
The bread now gone, she rose to her feet for more food. By the time her brother finished eating, she had finished two bowls of stew and three loaves of bread. Stomach full to bursting now, she leaned back in her seat and sighed.
Her brother huffed a laugh and set his empty bowl aside, drawing a worn pack of cards from the inner pocket of his cloak. "Want a game?"
"I always win," she said drowsily.
"Come on," he said, deftly shuffling the deck, "I've got a good feeling about today."
She knew he was only doing it to distract her from the worry that had begun to creep back in from the corner of her mind. Damon could never beat her at cards. But the distraction was a welcome one, and she shrugged and pushed her own bowl away as he split the deck.
He dealt her a shit hand on the first round. Intentional, she supposed. She let herself burn out, throwing all but one of her cards at him, and swiped replacements from the deck. Decent, but not wonderful. For a while, the twisting manoeuvres – as well as the trick cards her brother kept throwing down – kept her mind occupied. But after she won the first game, things got considerably easier, and her mind began to wander again, down dark, shadowed paths that had her heart stumbling in her chest.
She'd seen firsthand what the gargantuan silver wolves could do. Seen Micah's leg when he finally came home. Even after weeks of healing, she could still see the marks where the wolf's teeth had gone in, tearing all the way to the bone. A swollen knee that would never bend quite the right way again, skin mottled with scar tissue. There had been only so much the bloodwitches could do. Her brother hadn't been able to walk for months, and from then on he'd always used a cane. She'd been only twelve at the time, and the sight of it had shaken something deep within her. Some part that had still believed her older siblings were invincible.
The thought of something like that happening to Basil or Leanne made her stew churn in her stomach. Knowing that her brother had been lucky, that for a long time they hadn't been sure if he would ever walk again, made it all the worse.
There would always be casualties. Bodies that were never recovered. Ravaged cloaks, boots, weapons found in the snow, months or years later and returned to grieving relatives in a hopeless effort to compensate for their loss. It was something that was far easier to accept when someone she loved wasn't out there, far away from any source of help.
An hour dragged by. The terror set in again.
Her friends were out there. They could be barely fifty feet from the stone doors, and what sentry would be able to see them through the flurries of snow? Only when the storm abated...
A shudder ran through her, and she clenched her jaw.
They're alright¸ she told herself, returning her mind to the card game. They'll come back.
They would come back. She wouldn't accept any alternative.
She saw the hand of cards she'd just laid down, noticed that what her addled mind had read as an ace was, in fact, a two, and opened her mouth to curse.
A silence swept over the hall.
A blue-cloaked messenger appeared in the doorway, and Asta surged to her feet, ready to run to him and demand answers - but Damon gripped her wrist and held her in place. She watched as the man hurriedly walked the length of the hall and saluted when he reached General Alton's side.
Get on with it!
"What is it?" Alton asked solemnly.
"The hunting party has returned, sir."
An almighty cheer went up from the assembled hunters, novices, messengers and sentries alike.
Asta did not join in. Her heart pounded so hard she could hear the pulse rushing through her head.
This. This was the moment she'd hoped for and dreaded ever since the morning, when she had seen her friends off at dawn and watched them ride until their group was no more than a smudge of red and black in the snow.
"Sit down," Damon urged, "You look like you're going to pass out."
"I'm fine," she growled.
Her pressed the heel of his hand to his temple and muttered something that sounded a lot like 'Gods help me'.
It was an agonising few minutes before the first of the hunting party appeared in the doorway, red hoods covered with half-melted snow that steadily dripped down onto their shoulders as they made their way down the centre of the hall. Asta counted them, her heart in her mouth, and noted which of them had bloodied weapons hanging at their sides.
Fourteen. One was missing.
A wave of whispers broke out as others realised that one of the seasoned hunters hadn't made it back.
"Asta, sit down!" Damon hissed, tugging at her cloak. She slapped his hand away, ready to lash out with some insult – when the hunters turned to face the back of the hall again. She hurriedly shut her mouth.
A line of black-cloaked novices entered, hoods up, faces hidden by their heavy cowls. Her mouth growing dry, she counted again. One, two, three, four. Four with clean hands and weapons, walking with their heads bowed and shoulders curled in. She spared a second to have sympathy for them; they likely wouldn't get a chance to earn their reds until next winter, and by then, most of the novices their age would have filed into some other profession – becoming green-cloaked sentries or blue-clad messengers.
Four of them.
Six left to play.
They stood in the doorway – she could see them there, and her heart burst into a gallop as she caught a glimpse of white fur amidst the black of their cloaks. The first four reached Alton, saluted, and turned, pulling down their hoods.
Asta sagged with relief as she glimpsed Basil's boyish face and tousled brown hair, eyes bright in spite of his clean hands and weapons. His gaze found hers, and they smiled at each other, though Asta still felt weak-kneed.
Leanne was not among them.
The remainder began to walk, and she turned so quickly her neck gave a click of protest.
She heard the excited whispers, and wanted to join in even as sorrow weighted down her heart. Three deaths in total. Not awful for the beginning of winter, but still... rough. More painful than expected, to know that three families would not receive a cloak but instead a sum of money and whatever had been recovered.
They walked with their hoods up, as was custom, and even Asta couldn't hold in her gasp at the silver-grey wolf pelts they carried in their hands, blood still staining the edges, seeping into their gloves. Four new hunters. Four dead wolves.
Hurry up, she thought. They seemed to take an age to reach the end of the hall, and she gritted her teeth as they stopped, saluted, and spread out the fresh pelts on the floor before Alton.
There was a split second of silence.
As one, they ripped off their black cloaks and threw them to the floor, turning to face the crowds, blood-splattered faces lit up by wide grins.
Asta glimpsed Leanne's honey-gold braid, pulled over one shoulder, the end stained with blood – and leapt onto the bench, roaring with the rest of them and clapping her hands so hard her eyes watered from the pain.
Leanne waved at her, green eyes lit with triumph.
The fear left her, all in one great cresting wave, and Asta's shoulders sagged with relief.
They made it.