Shattered Land: Chapter One

snowy-cabin_2

The first installment of my one-on-one dark fantasy campaign played using the Blood of Pangea ruleset from Olde House Rules.  Our dice were rolled in a chat program while we took turns writing the results into a Google Docs document.  The actual play document follows.  

Thorvald went raiding as a younger man, but now makes his living cutting wood for trade.  He lives with his wife Gritta on the edge of a great pine forest, in a cabin of rough-hewn logs tucked into the foothills of the mountains.  Once he had a son, but Halmuth fell in battle and dwells now in the Silent Halls of Lord Moon.  Such is the way of things.

Sora is the woodcutter’s slave.

The cabin she shares with Thorvald and Gritta has two rooms: a great room with a central fire pit, where cooking, conversation and all the business of life are carried out; and a storage room, colder, separated from the home by a hanging of leather.  Sora sleeps in the storage room.  There’s also an earthen cellar dug out beneath the house, and accessed through a door outside.  

Most days, Thorvald spends the sunlit hours in the forest, felling trees and hewing wood that he then carries home across his back and deposits in the massive woodpile between the house and the well.  With winter beginning, those hours have become fewer, and the woodcutter has been inclined to work long into the twilight, risking attack from wild animals or savages in order to make his daily load.  So it is today; as the last light leaves the sky and a lean snowfall whirls in winds that brush the great timbers of the house, Gritta and Sora are alone before the fire.

The matron is a stout and buxom woman, with dark brown hair braided atop her head, black eyes, and skin that resists the wrinkles of her age.  She sits now on her furs, cutting the bitter skin from roots with a small knife.  From time to time, as the wind kicks up, she looks towards the door thins her lips.  

Above the crackle of the flames, Gritta observes, “Colder soon.  We’d best bring in water.”

Sora knows that when Gritta says “we” she means that Sora should bring in the water and look for signs of Thorvald’s approach, besides. She has no particular desire to go into the biting cold, as her dress is thin wool and the wind has all of the kindness of a drawn blade.

But she sets aside the wood she had been feeding into the fire and wipes her hands off on her skirt as she rolls up from her knees. The fire is well-stoked, it doesn’t need her hand tending it; the water in the pot that will become soup, when Gritta is done chopping, is already bubbling.

“Yes, mistress,” she says, quietly, with her head lowered.

The buckets are beside the door and her felt boots which do precious little to keep stones from nipping at her soles. But it’s better than going barefoot. When she’d been a small girl, new to the cabin, she had only carried one bucket. Now she lifts both and takes a breath, steeling herself before stepping outside into the gloaming.

The Lakeland cold is like a slap in the face. Sora hails from the Grass Sea, where particularly harsh winters can render the tall, dead grasses as brittle as spun glass, but still she must set her teeth against the sudden chill. Snowflakes are smudges of black against a purple sky, and the treeline is one long river of shadow.

As the girl makes her way across the yard towards the well, she notices something moving in the direction of the forest.  The shadow of a man, heavily laden, coming out of the greater gloom and over the hard and open ground towards the house.

No… there are two shadows.  If that’s Thorvald, then he isn’t alone.

For just a moment, Sora’s stomach clenches and her throat closes with a sudden flutter of anxiety. Two men? But the son is dead and their nearest neighbors are likely to be busy with their own twilight chores. She is a strong, sturdy girl but she is also clever and she knows that this means stranger.

But perhaps she was wrong. “Mistress!” she calls over the gusts of wind that look to steal the breath from her mouth. “Mistress, the master is coming! Someone is with him!”

Then– judging that it would take some time for the men to travel that distance– she hurries through filling the buckets. There would need to be water for hands and faces, and drinking if they weren’t inclined to mead or ale. Another mouth to feed meant that there would need to be more water added to the soup as well, and furs piled in a corner because no guest would come this late and not stay, and then there would also be…

Sora runs through the greater list of things needing done now that another was coming to stay as she bustles inside, the frightful chill of the water in the buckets splashing at her hands.

She set her jaw against her teeth’s chattering. “Just one man, walking with the master,” she tells Gritta as she places the buckets beside the hearth. “It was too dark to see who.”

Having heard Sora’s call, the matron was on her way to the door and meets the girl coming in. As Sora heads back to the hearth with her burden, Gritta holds the door open with one hand and peers into the gloom.

“At this hour?” Her lips move over silent calculations, then the muscle along her jaw tightens.  “We’re miles from the nearest village and the sun almost down… was there a horse?” Gritta’s eyes narrow, seeking a larger shadow through the drift of snow.

“No way a man on foot would have reached shelter before nightfall.” She pauses, then adds disapprovingly, “Poor planning that.”

Unless he meant to come here, thinks Sora. She doesn’t speak it aloud though. Gritta might take it as sass. Instead she says, “I didn’t see a horse, mistress. Just the men and the master with a fine load of timber.” Maybe that news would sweeten her.

If their guest was helping carry it would mean they’d be here soon so the girl hurries to begin preparing for their guest. Two stiffened leather mugs instead of the one, to be filled with hot mead– slightly cooled and watered too with the addition of some of the contents of the recently hauled bucket. These she leaves beside the hearth to keep their warmth and for Gritta to present, as her right.

“Should I lay down some more furs, mistress?” Her dark eyes seek Gritta out, as much to weigh the woman’s mood as to wait for further instructions. She hesitates and then asks, “Or run to meet and help carry?”

“You’ll not lift a finger on that stranger’s account afore your master tells you,” Gritta snaps. She looks outside a moment longer, then closes the door and bustles back to the hearth, settling on her furs as if she hasn’t just been watching her husband’s approach.  “Here to me,” she says, snapping her fingers at the furs beside her.  The matron frets over the two mugs that Sora has set out, snatches one and begins to sip from it.

In the next moment, the door bangs open again and the woodcutter enters. He’s a tall, bearded man, and still strong in a wiry way, but time has stolen some of his bulk so that it seems his bones are a little too large for the rest of him. The man who follows him is a little shorter, lighter of frame, and…

…remarkably handsome.

The stranger has long, blonde hair, worked into braids by his ears; it flashes in the firelight with hints of platinum when he lowers the hood of his cloak. He is clean shaven, with fine features and deep, dark blue eyes, almost cobalt in hue. In a land where most articles of clothing are grey or dun, he wears a tunic of forest green with a sort of golden embroidery around the throat.

Thorvald sets his axe by the door. Gritta and Sora get a cursory glance, and then he says flatly, “We’ve a traveler to stay this night. Make welcome, women.”

Gritta is staring. It seems to take her a moment to register that Thorvald has spoken. Then she swallows and says haltingly, “As you will, husband.  Sora, a cup for our guest. He must be cold.”

Gritta’s staring silence is an opportunity for Sora to survey their guest beneath the fringe of her lowered lashes. And survey him she does, curiosity pounding in her breast. Curiosity and then surprise when she realizes she finds him so pleasing to the eyes. Visitors are few and far between, and she’s not been struck by the looks of any of those who’ve been to the cabin before.

But this man…

It takes Gritta’s voice to pierce through her reverie. She startles and tucks down her chin as she rises from her knees, from where she’d taken a place beside Gritta’s furs. The remaining mug, the one intended for Thorvald, she lifts between her hands.

The leather has soaked in the hearth’s heat and it warms her cold fingers as she approaches the stranger. Sora is careful to keep her head lowered, presenting him only with the part of her hair atop her crown as she lifts the mug in offering.

“Blessings of the house, sir,” she murmurs– and then can’t resist flashing a stolen glance up at his face, from this closer vantage.

She should be running to fetch a fresh mug for Thorvald but instead she peeks and waits to see if the stranger drinks from the cup she’s offered him.

That stolen glance finds the stranger’s blue eyes on hers, as if he were waiting for just such a look.  His larger fingers weave with hers and brush them as he gently disengages the mug from her grasp.  There’s something unusual about his touch, but Sora has no time to consider it; instead she’s struck by the smile he flashes her, half-amused, and by the rich tenor of his voice when he says, “Thank you, young mistress.”  

Thorvald seems not to have noticed Sora’s lapse in service.  He shambles to the fireside and begins to loosen the ties on his hide jacket.  As he moves his arms, crusts of snow and ice glitter down to the furs or die in the flames.

“And thank you for your hospitality, sir,” the stranger says to Thorvald’s back.  “The same to your good wife.”  Gritta gets a glance, a brief smile, and then he looks bemusedly down at the lass before him.  “Is this your daughter?”

“No sir,” Gritta cuts in, with a touch of annoyance.  “Sora is a slave taken in battle with foreigners; pay her no mind.  Come, sit.  Husband, what is our guest’s name?”

Thorvald watches the hearth fire.  He seems not to have heard the question.

Sora is left blinking at the man. Their daughter? With her almond eyes and midnight hair? Given the light of amusement seen in the stranger, she half-wonders if he is teasing Gritta and loses herself, for a moment, in studying him to see if that might not be the case.

But Thorvald’s silence finally pulls her eyes away, a touch of heat in her cheeks– though whether that comes from the memory of the stranger’s fingers on hers or for Gritta’s naming her as a slave, she could not say.

“Mead, master?” A drink might thaw Thorvald’s tongue; she wants to hear their guest’s name as well. Her voice is more quietly pitched than Gritta’s, the question meant to be an undercurrent beneath the mistress’ tidal pull. Carefully keeping her dark eyes averted from their guest, she moves to fetch another mug and to fill it with the watered mead.

Though, as she extends the cup to Thorvald, she finds her gaze drawn back to the blonde man.

Thorvald scoops water from one of the buckets and absently rubs his hands together.  His flesh goes pale in the chill, but the ruddy smears of sap linger there.  “Make welcome, women,” he murmurs again, under his breath.  Water drips from his limp hands.

Then he seems to notice the slave beside him, and smiles briefly at her.  He takes the offered cup with a little nod.  

Glancing the stranger’s way, Sora catches the look he flicks between herself and her master.  The expression is there and gone; in an instant he’s grinning at Gritta and advancing to take her hand.  

“Call me Yuwen, mistress,” he supplies for Thorvald.  One hand cups the matron’s and the other covers it.  He looks down at her, holding her eyes as he speaks.  “You are a welcome sight to these eyes.  I did not think to happen across a house so far from the Jarl’s hall.  If not for your good husband’s aid, it would have been rough bedding in cave or hollow for me.  And maybe worse!”

“Indeed you are fortunate,” Gritta says, stammering only a little.  She seems unable to return his gaze and instead studies that hand that holds hers.  “There are wild people up in these woods who mean no good to the Pure Folk…”  

An awkward silence follows, as the stranger seems disinclined to release his hold.  At last Gritta frees her hand, lowers her head and with a murmured, “But you must be hungry both,” bustles back to the stew pot and kneels to toss in the roots.  “This will only be a moment more.  Sora, bowls from the storage.”

By which she means that tiny part of the room, separated by the hide curtain, where Sora and Thorvald’s other belongings are kept.

Banished! And with such strange currents in the room. Sora’s curiosity about the stranger, about this Yuwen, grows rapidly as she regards Gritta’s strange behaviour. Has she seen her mistress so lacking in confidence before? She finds herself worrying her lip between her teeth as she casts a look quickly between the free people.

And, as before, her eyes linger longest on Yuwen.

It’s a gaze that means her reply to Gritta comes at a slight delay and she can only hope– as seen in the quick duck of her head and scurry towards the curtain– that the woman doesn’t notice. Once behind the sheltering security of the curtain she’s able to draw a deeper breath while picking up the small stack of bowls for serving: three, one for each of those who dine first.

But she doesn’t hurry back. Instead, Sora presses close to the hide that shields her from view and peeks around the edge to survey the strangeness between her owners and their guest again. Perhaps, hidden, she will be better able to make sense of it all.

And admire the golden gleam of ember-light on Yuwen’s hair, too. But only for a moment, before Gritta remembers herself, and remembers the girl who is dawdling in her duties. Just a look before she bustles back with an air of obedient industry.

“Indeed, mistress, it is a cold world for men who must travel,” the stranger says.  “And not just in this bitter season!”  There’s a wink in his voice; from her angle behind the curtain, Sora can’t see if it’s accompanied by an actual gesture.  “I shall relish your warmth this evening.”

“Sir?” Gritta’s voice breaks between politeness and embarrassment.

Thorvald stands just where Sora left him, the cup of mead neglected in one hand.

“The warmth of your hearth, mistress,” Yuwen clarifies.  He smiles and claps the taller Thorvald on his shoulder.  “Please!  Sit, drink.  Make as you would.  I am happy enough for a quiet place beside this fire until the morning comes.”  At this, Thorvald sinks to sit cross-legged on the furs and lifts the mug to his bearded mouth.  His wife dips a long wooden spoon into the stew-pot and stirs.  It’s hard to tell from where Sora stands, but there may be a little color in her cheeks.

The bowls she carries rattle quietly in her hands as Sora suffers a shiver. She looks from master to guest and back again, her eyes wider than they were. Reflex guides her to her knees beside Gritta and the bowls to the floor so she can hold the first for a serving of stew. But she can’t take her eyes from the men.

She’s silent for a time, stewing over the chill she’s felt, the way the hairs at the back of her neck have lifted, and all along her arms.

Then, quietly, uncertainly, she asks, “Are you well, master? Did you take a chill in the forest?” Yuwen she keeps framed in the corner of her vision.

“Very like,” the stranger says, smiling.  He watches Sora into her place, then settles gracefully beside her master.  “I fear I kept him overlong in the wood.  As a good man and prudent, he wanted to see I was no threat to him or his.  Warm yourself, man!”

Thorvald drinks again, then sets his mug aside and opens his palms towards the fire, smiling a little under his beard.  “It is good to be under roof again,” he rumbles in agreement.  “I’ll be right soon enough, Sora.”

Yuwen continues to study the slave girl; his gaze slips from slanted eye, to cheek, to the curve of her neck. “And threat I am none,” he continues, “unarmed as you see, and lacking so much size to my host.”  He pauses, then leans forward a little towards the womenfolk.  “Sora.  Not a Pure name, that.  You’re from the plains, aren’t you?”

Taking the bowls from Sora in turn, Gritta quietly fills them with stew from the pot.

Sora cannot help the dubious look she gives the man when he speaks of his lack of size in comparison. A reply springs to her lip, something to do with strangeness being as great a threat on cold isolated nights, but she keeps the words on her tongue instead of voicing them– the questions he follows with catch her off guard.

Such attention to a slave girl! “The plains, yes. But I remember little of them,” she says with a glance at Gritta, half-expecting the woman to interject something. Faced with her quiet instead, she lifts the first bowl and hesitates.

Her uncertainty is solved by taking a second bowl as well and carrying both at the same time to the men. Sora kneels before them and tilts her head to return Thorvald’s smile with her own smaller effort. “The master found my mother and I there.”

Found and took, but she doesn’t clarify this as she places the near bowl in one of Thorvald’s outstretched hands. The second goes to Yuwen, whose eyes draw hers as her smile slips away. Before she realizes she means to do so, she asks, “Have you been there?”

The night wind lashes Thorvald’s cottage; the sturdy wooden beams groan softly, then cease. Thorvald takes the offered bowl, sets it on the hearth and resumes warming his hands over the fire, rubbing them together, spreading his thick fingers.

The stranger lifts his bowl from Sora’s fingers with a smile.  He’s about to speak when Gritta cuts in, “Taken in battle, as is a Pure Man’s right.”  She splashes stew into her own bowl as she talks.  “The mother passed, more’s the pity.  I daresay there was more to her than this piece of flesh.”

“Just so, my lady,” Yuwen concurs, smiling down at Sora all the while.  He dips a finger tip into his bowl and sucks it, sampling the broth.  “Mm.  I do not doubt that my host was more than a match for the plains folk.  And to the victor, the spoils…”

He tilts his head, letting those midnight blue eyes play over the exposed skin above the neck Sora’s dress.  “She’s a pretty thing enough,” he observes lightly.  “Tell me Sora, are you put to your master’s bed?”

The way Yuwen sucks on his finger starts Sora’s blush but it is the question that follows which roots it in place. Her cheeks flame. Gritta’s barb washes over her like a breeze instead of sinking deep as she believes it was intended. When Halmuth had her, it had been simply another duty, if Thorvald had ever beckoned she might have gone more gladly for he was kind to her at times– but under their guest’s bright eyes, she feels something flutter behind her breastbone and has to fight not to squirm under the heat in her face.

She rocks back on her heels and drops her chin towards her throat, hiding from Yuwen and Thorvald both behind the wings of her hair.

“No, sir.” It’s truth but not all of it. Sora hesitates before she says, nearly inaudible, “His son, sir. Before he fell.”

And then her confusion and self-consciousness speeds her to her feet, into a hasty retreat that– for once– sees her taking refuge behind Gritta. It’s a thin sort of security– the sidelong glance given the woman proves she expects to be taken to task at any moment now– but from there she feels sure enough to look at Yuwen again.

The matron swats Sora’s thigh as she returns, but it’s a mild sort of rebuke.  Gritta seems happy enough to have her away from the menfolk.  “My husband hasn’t had need of her that way,” she puts in.

Yuwen laughs without malice as the slave girl retreats, then delicately fetches a root from his stew and begins to chew.  “Mm… delicious, my lady,” he says, catching Gritta’s eye.  “I’m sure my host is well satisfied with your attendance, in all respects.” He waits until he catches the matron starting back at him, then winks.  She quickly busies herself with her stew.

The stranger looks down at his own bowl, sparing Sora the teasing or torment of his regard.  “You don’t remember the plains, then?” he continues, as he eats.  “A shame.  As it happens, I have been there, once.  Shall I tell you the story?”

He glances up at her, a bright-eyed, then rather casually down again at the stew.  “When I was a little younger, I had occasion to go tradesman with a party of our folk onto the Grass Sea.  Beaver pelts, I think it was, of which those people are very fond, and seeking horses, of which the Plainsmen, you may know, are acknowledged masters.  After many days all but lost in the vast immensity of that place, we found the camp of Uxia Jin, son of Jin, one of the greatest Riders of all those people.”

Yuwen looks up again, from Sora, to Gritta, and leans forward a little as he says, “The tents of Uxia Jin’s family stretched to the horizon, in all the colors of the rainbow.  His herds were immense, both of goat and horse.  His power was clear for us to see.  But the real treasure of Uxia Jin, his people told me, were his wives.  Do you know what they said?”

The swat is accepted without cringing or flinch. Mild is preferable to sharp and even on her guard, as Sora is, she finds herself being drawn in by the stranger’s word-weaving. The way he handles Gritta alone is worth fascination– she finds herself looking between them in that interaction, wondering.

When he speaks of her home, she finds herself seeking out his eyes again and no matter the roses that linger in her cheeks. His descriptions elicit a very different sort of tug in her breast.

“I remember the horses,” and for the first time, Yuwen wins a smile from her. It’s not a full smile, it shows no teeth, but the curve of her lips is a definite thing. “Not those names, or those places, but the horses. I had a pony.”

But here Sora thinks to silence herself quickly, with a wary glance at Gritta. When Yuwen frames his next question, the girl’s answer comes mutely: she shakes her head in a no, having no idea what was said about Uxia Jin’s wives.

“Ah,” Yuwen says, flashing the slave girl a smile in return.  “There she is.  You see, Sora, I won’t bite.”  He lifts the stew bowl to his lips and takes a little sip.  “Mm.  I wish that I had a horse from the plains.  Magnificent creatures, and they quicken our stock when bred in.  That’s how we hoped to profit on our journey, in fact.  But back to the tale…”

His voice lowers, as if sharing a deep secret.  “The great Uxia Jin had five wives, and his family said that each was more beautiful and more talented than the last.  And for his fifth wife, Uxia Jin had a fondness that bordered on mania.  She was kept at all times in her own separate tent, attended by blind men; Uxia Jin had put out their eyes so that only he could look upon her maddening beauty.  It was said that she spent her days upon Uxia Jin’s best rugs, among three great braziers always burning to keep the night cold at bay.  And they said that the fifth wife of Uxia Jin was always naked in her tent, clad only in red ribbons around her wrists, and ankles, and dangling from her waist.”

A smile creeps over the stranger’s lips as he looks from Gritta to Sora, pausing for effect.  “At night, the great Uxia Jin would go alone into this tent, to his fifth wife, and to the music of a blind flute player, she would dance for him.  It was the most exquisite dance in all the Grass Sea, perhaps all the world, and no man had seen this thing but Uxia Jin.  No man was permitted to enter the Tent of the Fifth Wife.”

Sora quickly drops her head but not before her smile deepens in answer to Yuwen’s own. Even his mention of biting couldn’t dampen the flash of amusement she feels at his teasing.

The story draws her back, however. The light and color of it– though she reckons, privately, that a life lived alone and apart from everyone in a tent must be boring indeed– and the tickle of half-remembered impressions pulling her into the telling. She fancies she can almost hear that flute song, and perhaps even the whisper of ribbons around wrists and ankles, the nap of a thick rug beneath her feet…

“Did you see her?” she asks without thinking, gazing openly at Yuwen now, curiosity replacing the fire of unease in her chest.

The storyteller looks surprised.  “To look upon Uxia Jin’s fifth wife would have been death to me!” he protests.  “However…”  His scandalized expression slips into an amused and rueful smile.  “Very late one night, as I lay awake watching the stars, I heard the sound a flute coming from the Tent of the Fifth Wife.”

He sets his bowl aside and shifts round on his bottom to face Gritta and Sora, clearly taken by the seriousness of this part of the tale.  “Now here is I,” he says softly, putting out one hand.  “And here,” he spreads the other at a distance, “is the Tent of the Fifth Wife.  And the night all black.  And no man between me and that music, and what might lay beyond the dyed wool…  well.  How could I not try, and be a man?”

Yuwen tents the fingers of both hands on the earthen floor, pitched slightly forward onto them, like a cat.  “And so I crept.  So slowly, so carefully, across that black distance to the blessed tent.  Looking behind me, and before, and to sides, to see that none of Uxia Jin’s hundred cousins caught sight of me, for surely the sword would have come down on my neck that very moment.  But man I saw none.”

He takes a breath.

“So I slipped up on my belly, like a snake, and I held the breath still in my body, and I raised the very edge of the flap upon the Tent of Uxia Jin’s Fifth Wife, where the flute’s music curled and summoned and the braziers blazed.  Ah… shall I tell you what I saw?”

By now, Sora has forgotten entirely that she sits in a wind-rattled lodge, surrounded by hard, cold country among people who are not her own. She is in that same night with Yuwen, seeing what he sees and feeling what he feels. He takes a breath, she holds hers.

And when he pauses in his telling, he has her as surely as an angler has a fish on a baited hook.

Without caring what Gritta might think or say, she rushes to prompt, “What? What did you see?”

Yuwen holds the slave girl in his deep blue eyes and flashes a showman’s smile.  “I saw a man, sitting cross-legged in the middle of an empty tent, playing a flute.  And beside him was another, very, very large man, with a very large sword tucked into his bright yellow sash.  Both of them had perfectly good use of their eyes.  And both of them were using those eyes to spy me where I peeped in.”

The stranger sighs, then fetches up his stew bowl to drain it.  “You see,” he explains, “the great Uxia Jin wanted to know whether we foreigners would be plain and trustworthy in our dealings with him.  So he gave out the story of his ravishing fifth wife, and her ribbons, and the flute, and the tent.  And he waited to see what we would do.  I fell right into his trap.”

“But,” he continues, as if taking heart, “this is why Uxia Jin is a leader of men, and Yuwen Blue-Eyes is wandering the woods alone on a winter’s night.  Needless to say, our trade of pelts for horses did not go as we had hoped.  But I returned from the Grass Sea with my life.  And I learned a valuable lesson.”

Yuwen pauses, smiles; his lovely gaze plays from Gritta, to Sora, then back.  “And that lesson is this.  When presented with beautiful women in the possession of other men, you must always– always– keep your distance.”

Swept up in the story as she is, Sora has no resistance to the mingling of horror and amusement she feels when Yuwen describes what he found. She slips a hand over her mouth to cover its gape, and winces with dancing eyes.

The moral of the story, however, seems less important compared to the next question that floats up in her mind.

“But how did you escape the large man’s sword, sir?” Her blush has faded, even in the face of his compliment. She lifts her eyebrows at the man, too curious to count the question as prying. “If they were waiting and armed, they meant to do you harm. You left without even a cut?” she asks, and tries not to consider the small pang of pride felt for an unknown and distant kinsman’s cleverness.

“Bah,” Gritta says.  “If he’s even been on the plain at all, silly girl.”  But there’s amusement in her voice, and a certain fondness in the look she sends over to their strange guest.

“My lady, I was!” Yuwen swears, one hand raised.  “May Lord Moon take me down to the Silent Halls if it be otherwise.”  Then he summons Sora with a curl of fingers and a wave of his wooden stew-bowl.  “Come now and take this.  To your question, I am a man who knows better than to put his back to the stronger warrior, and armed into the bargain.”  Yuwen chucks Thorvald good-naturedly on the shoulder here; the larger man smiles wanly and continues to pick at his food.

“In brief, I threw myself down before their mercy and they took me before Uxia Jin, who was pleased to look kindly upon my contrition.  If I had fought, or fled…”  Yuwen considers, then shakes his head.  “Well.  I would not have the pleasure of your company this cold winter night, I may say.”

Sora bows her head to her mistress’ judgment, if only to hide the flash of amusement that answers the same tone in the woman’s voice. That she laughs with Gritta doesn’t matter in the least.

But it pleases her that their guest seems as willing to take teasing as he is to deliver it.

That reassurance means that she rises smoothly to pad around the hearth in her felt boots, hand extended to accept the bowl from Yuwen. “It was wise of you not to run,” she says as she fits her palm under the wooden curve. On the wisdom of peeking into the tent at all, she says nothing– after all, it’s too clear from the light in her eyes and the easy lilt of her smile now that she would have been tempted to the same.

And, remembering her manners, she adds, “Wisdom and our pleasure as well, sir. Thank you for your story.”

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