The hunter's vows passed in a blur. Asta hopped from foot to foot, burning with impatience, and when her friends made their way over, she didn't hesitate before throwing herself into Leanne's arms.
"You made it!" She almost screamed, drawing back to look into their faces. Unharmed, as far as she could tell. The realisation was enough to wring another laugh from her. "Why were you so damn late?! I thought you'd died!"
"You Mother Hen," Leanne teased, rolling her eyes. Basil only laughed.
"Oh, Bas," she said, turning to him, "I'm so sorry. I'm sure you'll get it next time."
He shook his head, still smiling. "I don't fancy doing that again – it's the sentries for me, I think. I don't even know why I went."
She nodded. Basil had always preferred watchtower duty to training outside, even in the marginally warmer summers.
"To be honest, I think being a sentry would suit you better."
He raised his eyebrows in mock surprise, "Oh?"
"No!" she cried, snorting with laughter, "You know that's not what I mean!"
He laughed again. "But Leanne! Straight in the eye from a hundred paces."
"In the middle of a storm?"
"No, before that," Leanne assured her, "Only a feyling could see through that much snow. Gods, we could barely make out the rest of the group."
"And you say I'm mad for not liking snow."
"Oh, shut up. What idiot runs out into the middle of a blizzard to make snowballs?"
She snorted, and turned towards the stewpots, "Are you hungry?"
"Starving," they said in unison.
She headed to the side of the room and filled bowls for them both, swiping three loaves of bread while she was at it. It would be a shame not to celebrate her friends' return with food, she told herself – though she managed to hold herself back from grabbing a second loaf for herself as she made her way back.
By the time she returned, Basil and Leanne had taken their seats, and Damon had left to sit with his friends, their cloaks an array of colours against the dull grey wall. He spared her a glance, and they lifted a hand to each other before turning back to the infinitely more interesting people around them.
She grilled Leanne and Basil for details of the hunt. How big were the wolves? How long had it taken them to find one? And how in hell had they managed to find their way back once the snow storm hit?
"Slowly," Leanne replied. We couldn't see anything. It was a nightmare. That was when..." she swallowed, "That was when we lost Ellen and Beck."
A grim silence fell between them.
They didn't talk for a while, avoiding each other's eyes. But as the evening wore on, they slowly returned to themselves, and turned the conversation away from the hunt – onto simpler, happier things. Their mood greatly improved when a cauldron full of mulled wine was brought out, and the three of them drank to Leanne's success.
The wine was well-spiced and sweet, and the card games they began were challenging, and by the end of the evening she was so drunk and full of laughter that she couldn't imagine why she had spent all those hours pacing and scowling.
Before everyone left, Darryl rose to his feet to make an announcement. The hall instantly silenced.
"A toast, and a moment of silence to our departed hunter, David Ferr. And our novices, Ellen Smith and Beck Roan." He raised his glass, "May Raelynn find them just and true."
"May Raelynn find them just and true," they echoed, and drank. Asta set down her glass carefully and bowed her head with the rest of them. From across the room, she heard someone sobbing. Beck's sister.
The minutes passed, and one by one they rose to their feet to leave. As she made her way to the doors, Asta felt every cup of wine she'd drunk and swore, knowing she'd have a vicious headache in the morning. It took longer than she cared to admit for her to stagger up to her little room and lock the door behind her.
It was almost completely dark inside, the only light being that of the moon, streaming in through her still-open curtains. The storm had calmed now, though flurries of snowflakes still swirled beyond her window. She paused to watch for a moment. They seemed to glow faintly against the dark sky.
She lit the small lantern hanging from the ceiling, illuminating her space. The room was simple, functional – her bed, a chest for her clothes and a few small drawers for her more personal items. Her letters from home were stacked on top, tied neatly with a red ribbon. Beside them sat a deck of faded cards and a candle that she lit before sweeping the curtains shut.
She pulled off her cloak, hanging it from a hook attached to her door, and set the iron brooch she used to fasten it beside her letters. Already, her head was beginning to ache, and she cursed the sweet, spiced wine as she changed, put out the lantern, and clambered into bed.
For a moment, she looked at her black cloak from where it hung at her door. It was little more than a pool of shadow in the flickering light of her candle.
It'll be red by the end of winter, shepromised herself.
She blew out the candle, smiling slightly, and burrowed down into the covers.
True enough, she felt like death the next morning.
Basil, too, was nursing a bad hangover when they met for breakfast. They ate in sullen silence until Leanne arrived, breezing through the doors and looking fresh as a daisy.
"You look terrible," she said by way of greeting as she took a seat across from Asta.
She glowered at her. "Good morning to you too."
Leanne smirked, propping her chin up on a hand. "Is that wine giving you trouble?"
"You're faking. You drank at least a cup more than I did."
Leanne shrugged. "Maybe I'm just better at holding my drink."
She laughed. Bas laid his head down on the table and moaned, "Can you be quiet?"
Leanne only laughed again and rose to her feet to get a bowl of porridge. Asta dumped spoonfuls of honey into her own bowl, hoping the rush of sugar would help to wake her up. The headache, damn her, felt like it was there to stay.
The hall slowly filled up as the rest of the force filtered in, cloaks trailing behind them. She spotted her brother and a few others he recognised, lifting a hand in greeting when they look her way.
She heaved a yawn, tempted to follow in Bas's footsteps and simply try to nap on the table.
"Devan'll kill you if you don't wake up," Leanne said with a smirk.
"I'm going to kill you if you don't shut up."
Her friend snorted, and Bas made some indistinct noise that could have been a laugh or a groan.
"Come on," Asta said wearily, rising to her feet and nudging his shoulder, "He won't be any happier if we're late."
They half-dragged him from the hall and into the outside corridor, weaving their way through the breakfast stragglers. Torches burned at intervals along the stone walls; there were no windows this low down. As they climbed sets of stairs, they appeared - narrow sheets of glass, beyond which only snow, and more snow, could be seen.
The training hall - one of three - was huge, full of targets, painted sparring rings, and weapons racks. At the far end were a pair of great oak doors that led out into the yard. Rows of balconies lined the walls so people could watch without the risk of being impaled. Asta looked up, caught a glimpse of the general, and quickly looked away.
This early in the morning, the hall was almost empty. A handful of novices were dotted around the room, squeezing in a few minutes' extra practise with swordplay, or archery, or whatever they felt they needed to work on.
The three of them stood to the side while they waited for their teacher and class to arrive.
"I wonder who'll be in the next group," Asta said, looking around at the other novices.
Leanne ticked them off on her fingers, "You, James, Lucas, Kyra, Lillian... and Thomas."
She shrugged, "No idea."
Asta's heart began to quicken. She'd been desperate to earn her reds for as long as she could remember. All of her siblings - aside from seven-year-old Faren - had already done it, following in her mother's footsteps. First Micah, then Dawn (the two of them discharged when Micah hurt his leg) then Damon. And now her.
"You need to show off today, Asta." Leanne said, "Be as arrogant as you can. Be... be like Darryl."
She snorted, and clapped a hand to her mouth.