The visitor was trained to kill. Hamara could tell from the moment she saw the unknown woman standing in the doorway, like a wolf smelling one of its own hidden among a pack of street dogs.
The woman had made no sound as she walked through the entrance of the Grove, and it took only a glance to recognize her boots were shade’s leather, painstakingly whisper-stitched to avoid any chance of creaking.
“I don’t suppose you’ll need a room,” Hamara said.
“No,” said the traveller, pulling back her hood to reveal short, wavy black hair and eyes the violet of a looming storm. “I won’t be staying long.”
Hamara chuckled. “Your kind never does. Very well, make your threat.”
The stranger raised an eyebrow. “I did not come here to threaten. I would not be so foolish. It’s been decades since you left the Deathbrokers. Some would say you’ve become an old woman, weak and slow. I’d say that whoever you are now, you’re still deadly enough to have survived this long. I’m not looking for a fight I could lose.”
Hamara considered the woman’s words carefully as she sized her up, scrutinizing her travelling clothes for pockets, folds, and lines that might conceal a weapon. She mentally traced the fastest way the woman could draw from each location, and how the movement would guide her initial assault into a swing, stab, lunge, or throw, playing out the opening moves of each possible combat.
Finally, she turned and walked toward the rear porch, passing a line of ornate birdcages and the dirt-encrusted shovel leaning against the doorframe.
“Follow me,” she said, not looking back.
The woman allowed her boots to make a slight scuff as she crossed the floor after Hamara. It seemed they would be able to speak peacefully.
Outside, the sun beat down on the late-summer soil like a golden hammer. The orchard was empty, the Grove uncustomarily quiet in the off-season between the celebrations of early summer and the Festival of Sparks, which came with the harvest on Summit. Hamara had been taking advantage of the calm to do some planting in the heart of the grove.
Before the two women were rows and rows of apple trees, some centuries old, sprawling out across the hills. The air was rich with the scent of earth and blossom. Even now, decades after staking her claim here, Hamara found the smell intoxicating.
“Tell me, do you still remember their names?” she asked as her fellow assassin joined her on the porch. “I’ve danced this dance so many times, I worry one day I’ll forget the names of all my partners.”
“I doubt that, innkeeper. Our colleagues say this orchard is your memory palace. Every tree is a name from your past, and you recite them as you walk. But I’ve never thought of them as dancing partners.” She paused to catch a blossom in her palm as it blew by.
“No, what then?”
“Old flames,” said the woman, releasing the blossom into a current of wind. “One night, fate draws you in close to them—so close you can see their soul trembling in the depths of their eyes. And then there’s the telltale shudder, the intimate flesh gone cold to you again. The flame goes out, and once more you find yourself alone in the darkness, reciting the names of people you knew too briefly.”
“I have little time for lovers these days,” Hamara replied. She thought of the news that had come up the mountain last week, of a friend she would never see again. “I suppose you’re here about the girl and her tapestry,” Hamara said, dropping the veil of metaphor.
“Aye,” said the woman.
“Well, I have no tapestries, and I haven’t seen the girl in years. But perhaps you’ll settle for a chat as we tour my orchard.”
“I would be honoured.”
“Good, then follow closely. Some guests have gotten lost wandering among the trees and never found their way out again.”
“I’ll tread lightly,” said the woman. “I believe one or two of my old associates may be among your orchard’s lost souls.”
They walked down a lane of stout trunks, listening to the wind rustle through the boughs and watching white apple blossoms scatter across the miles of sloping green. Magpies flitted from branch to branch, watching their passage. As the visitor passed below one, it took off in a flutter of black and white feathers, beating its way up against the air currents on the mountain.
“If you are who I think you are, I believe that might be one of the old associates you spoke of,” Hamara said, nodding at a wizened tree to their left. “He made the mistake of visiting my grove at night. He tripped on a root and took a terrible fall onto the knife he’d brought with him. It’s a shame I arrived too late to help.”
“If that was who you say it was, he always was too eager on the approach,” the woman replied. “When we’d spar, he would close in like he could already see the blow landing in his mind. I warned him it would get him killed one day. Pity he never took it to heart.”
“He took it to heart in the end,” said Hamara, turning deeper into the orchard. “I saw to it.”
Hamara briefly pondered how they would fare if either of them drew a blade. This woman was younger, well-trained, and obviously fast enough to feel comfortable walking into a potential enemy’s sanctum. Hamara’s skills were as sharp as ever, but she was sixty now, and the years had taken some of the edge off her blade. Not a lot, but enough to mean the difference between victory and death.
The visitor shrugged. “Some people learn the hard way. I seem to recall the family who originally owned this land suffered a similarly hard lesson.”
Hamara cursed inwardly for almost breaking stride as she heard this. Very few people knew the Grove’s history, fewer still the history of the family who once owned it. Her guest had done her research.
She focused on maintaining her easy pace, looping back toward the inn. She steered clear of the heart of the grove, where her most precious secrets were buried and the richest harvest grew. As they approached the rear porch, the woman broke the silence.
“It is worth contemplating the fate of the Cawallon family,” the visitor continued. “The former lords of this land also kept trees full of curious fruit and birds who bore secrets. And they were good rulers, until they let the wrong bird loose. And over what? The whims of a girl who did not understand that once knowledge is unleashed on the world, it cannot be put back in its cage. Those whims cost them their name, their home, their history, and their holdings—including this very orchard.” The woman paused on the threshold, still looking ahead, but Hamara was certain she was keenly aware of everything around her. “And now you are the new grovekeeper, and another girl has begun opening doors she does not understand. It would be a shame if history were to repeat itself.”
“So you did come to threaten?” Hamara said, pushing past her to walk inside. If the woman were to attack, it would be now, as Hamara’s eyes adjusted to the darkness inside.
As she passed the shovel in the doorway—too heavy to swing quickly if the woman struck first—Hamara drew a small, round fruit from her pouch and a paring knife from its concealed sheath. The blade was small, but coated with a dormant poison that would become deadly if it contacted blood. Truth be told, the fruit was the more dangerous weapon in the hands of the innkeeper, but whether or not her visitor recognized the marloc remained to be seen.
The woman didn’t follow her inside, but instead leaned against the doorframe, looking out at the orchard as she took in the sunlight and sky.
Hamara began to cut up the fruit.
After a long silence, the woman spoke. “I came to make a request on behalf of my employer, and I will report back that you are not our enemy. But if you know where the girl or the tapestry is, I urge you to tell me. And if you won’t tell me, at least stay out of the events to come. You know the artifact is dangerous in the wrong hands. Thousands could die. Empires could fall. This orchard could once again be put to the sword and torch. All because you indulged the whims of a misguided girl.”
Hamara leaned against the other side of the door frame, and for a moment, the two women imagined the flurry of blows they’d exchange if one of them struck. It would be over so quickly. A flash of blades in the summer sun, blood spilling on the parched earth, and then a return to the silence of apple blossoms carried by the breeze.
“Let the swords and torches come,” said Hamara. “Blood and ash are good for the soil every now and then. There are only two women I’d trust with the tapestry. One is already dead, and it seems you’re hunting the other.” She leaned forward. “And if I find either of their blood on your knife, I’ll see you planted in my orchard before the harvest comes.”
The woman continued to watch the wind sway the ancient trees, her expression unperturbed. “Very well. I will carry your reply to my employer. I did mean what I said earlier: you are not our enemy. You and I might have been allies in another life.”
“No one gets another life,” said Hamara. “The apple falls once, and it is either eaten or the soil claims it. A great harvest is coming, I can tell. A reaping more red and bountiful than this mountain has ever seen.”
“Then I’ll see you when the apple falls,” said the woman, and she bowed and took her leave.
When she was gone, Hamara allowed herself a moment to rest against the doorframe and release the tension that had been coiled in her body all through their conversation. Who was the woman? One of the Grants, almost certainly. Perhaps the one who had thrown her lot in with that upstart merchant in Adriel. She would have her magpies listen closely for news from Windfall Harbour.
She finished slicing up the marloc fruit and fed the pieces to the birds in the cages by the door. The new brood was developing quickly. Once they learned to loose the mechanisms on their cages, they would be ready to send out.
She would need them. She had letters to send. It would take a team to find the girl and keep her safe. A bruiser. A healer. A markswoman. A mage.
Yes, a red harvest was coming, and she had just the people in mind to make sure one particular apple did not fall before its time.
Want to see how this story continues? Look out for the forthcoming campaign EMBERWIND: The Songweave Tapestry to see what role your Heroes play as the rest of the story unfolds!
This week’s Archive story comes from Peter Chiykowski, co-writer of EMBERWIND: The Songweave Tapestry campaign, which follows from this story. He’s the creator of the webcomics Rock Paper Cynic, Is It Canon?, and What’s George Doing Today?, the viral Twitter sensation Dad Joke Han Solo, and the postcard fiction project The Shortest Story.
Art by San Kim. San is a Canadian illustrator whose work has appeared in Pathfinder and whose art of iconic amine, video game, and movie characters has been seen in artist alleys across North America.