You meet in a tavern: One

It’s not as though she couldn’t stay away indefinitely. Out There.

Sometimes she fancies she could really do it, really retreat into the green and the wind and the water. The frost of the mountain. The warm damp earth and the scent of moss. No counsel to keep but her own. A satisfying thought.

And yet her boots keep finding their way back to the root-bound trail, keep following it until its tangles relax and smooth into fine packed earth, until the bracken gives way to fences and hedgerows and the trees shake themselves into orderly lines. The breeze tickles through them, catching up a scent so sweet and so golden and so rich one could almost imagine it pooling on the ground along with the afternoon light. Ripe for the picking, surely.

Beside her, the crunch of claws against earth, a familiar earthy tang cutting through the scent of the orchards. She does not need to look to reach down, raking slim fingers roughened by wire and bow-string through the silky fur between her friend’s ears. The dense red brush of his tail flicks against her trousers before he trots ahead of her, proud flag-bearer in their little procession of two.

Somewhere ahead, a horse whickers and stamps; a startled chicken scuttles out of the way. Someone whistles, tuneless and distracted but pleasant; the little path broadens in anticipation.

Maybe it’s just that I get tired of my own cooking.

She chuckles to herself, briefly startled by the sound. Or perhaps it’s that you’ve got to exercise your voice once in a while.

The hedgerow yields to a low stone wall at last, the tidy stacking of blue-gray-green slate that lines the yard of the Huntsman’s Table. Here the little earthen path crosses the broad, pale-gray ribbon of one of the Old Roads, neat interlocking slabs laid by armies of slaves or elemental magics or perhaps just wakened from a long dream in the earth, depending on who you talk to. Here the inn nestles easy and confident into a copse of trees old enough to have sheltered six generations before her, the deer-headed man on its brightly-painted sign inviting all to a spectacular feast at a great stone table surrounded by a circle of monoliths.

The circle is real. The villagers know it, and those with sense show it proper respect. She has walked it many times, breathing in its energy on those crystalline winter nights when the moon crafts the new year, setting it free into the world.

The deer-headed man is real, as well.

Though not so many know that.

Below the sign sits another, this one a larger slab of that gray-green slate. Someone has chalked on it, with more eagerness than elegance, “SPECIAL TONIGHT: Roast pig with gemfruit and greens!”

Her stomach growls a little at the thought. That golden smell. And sure enough, here it is again, drifting through the yard, a gilded flash darting through a spicy darkness that sets the hunter in her to prowling. Yes. All of it.

“You’re back!”

She knows that voice. Anne, the keeper’s daughter, lithe and lively and flaxen-haired, a neat white apron smoothed over her blue dress against the vagaries of the coming evening.

Her companion is quicker to respond than she is, leaping onto the wall with a gleeful bark as the new arrival laughs her own greeting. “And you too, Ren,” she adds, extending a hand as if to scratch behind his ears but not quite touching, not yet. “May I?”

The eagerness of the answering headbutt is all the permission she needs.

“So. Dinner, then?”

She nods, her voice still too rusted from disuse to chance – and Anne’s expression turns a little wry.

“And how will you be paying tonight?”

She smiles broadly in response, detaching a little leather bag from her belt, tugging at the cord until it falls open enough to fill the air between them with a desert-bright spiciness, watching Anne’s eyes widen in delight. Gold of another kind, coaxed from between the roots of the oldest pines on the mountain.

“Really?” She hefts the bag with a practiced hand, feeling the weight – then peers eagerly inside. “That’ll feed you for a week, if you want it! Come inside!”

As she passes under the sign she nods up at the deer-headed man. Freely offered, freely taken.

I pass the night in the realm of men.

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