Aranei and Milly Part 3: Settling In

((Nebelhain, Dalen))

Three Months Later.

After a few months to heal Milly was feeling well enough to be out of bed most of the day and pitching in where she could. By this point most of the children had gotten used to her disfigured appearance and everyone was very welcoming and willing to give what they could to the couple to help get them on their feet again. Aranei’s recovery had been much faster. She’d suffered far less severe burns and was up and about within the first month. She’d already started speaking with Kristoff about improving perimetre checks and security around Nebelhain. Having been a member of the Brinerest Town Watch, her skill set was more suited to this than Kristoff’s, who was more trained for field combat than guard duties.

“Is it true knights start training when they’re only seven years old?” Aranei asked him.

“Nine for me,” Kristoff said, somewhat humbly. “That’s when I began being taught how to use a lance.”

The two were standing in a field on the edge of the largely vacant township, roughly six metres from the tree line that made up the back border of the fledgling community.

“As far as blades go, I only know the basics,” Aranei said, “For the most part in my post, the town was small enough just being able to grab a person and put them in the dirt was enough to stop them. Most of them were just punks trying to show they had brass balls, and all it took was a twist of the wrist and a leg sweep and they went crying back to momma.” Aranei shrugged slightly. “I didn’t arrest anyone I didn’t have to. Not much sense in it if you ask me. Punk kids gotta learn they can’t steal to eat, but not looking to ruin a kids life just because their empty belly made them make a stupid choice.”

Kristoff looked like he understood her position, but there was a haunted look in his eyes from the moral ambiguities he himself had struggled with in the years before coming to Nebelhain where in comparison life was much simpler and complexities were few. "It sounds like you acted wisely," he told her. "This town is so small that to my knowledge there has never been a crime committed here. All are afforded a free home, none go hungry, and we have a surfeit of goods available to anyone who needs or wants them. But this might not always be so if the population continues to grow, as Silika hopes it will."

“As unkind as this might sound and do not get me wrong myself and Milly both can never do enough to thank you for saving us... but I personally believe as the town tries to expand we must make hard calls and be somewhat critical of whom we allow to settle here,” Aranei said. “We do not have to turn away, but…” she paused a beat, staring at the trees. “All it would take for chaos to come to his place is one of the church knights feigning misfortune and bringing the wrath of their gods to this peaceful place. I don’t know if I could handle getting anyone else hurt because of them.”

“We’re a long way from their jurisdiction,” Kristoff assured her, but the more he thought about it, the more he thought the threat of the High Church of Sarnia could not be completely discounted. “This is a largely ungoverned area so they could attempt to claim it, but if they were smart they wouldn’t want to borrow the trouble of invading Dalen when they themselves could be invaded by the army of the Iron Queen.”

Aranei shook her head, “I do not fear an invasion. I fear them tying up loose ends,” she clarified. “The fire they started wasn’t a warning, it was an execution attempt. And I fear they won’t care who they kill if it means ‘settling things’ and not looking like fools that allowed ‘heretics’ to go free.”

A frown fell over Kristoff’s face as he digested this. “They know you are still alive? Of course, they would not have found your remains in the burnt ruins of the house,” he said, answering his own question. “Still it would be more effort than it would be worth trying to track you down inside the Dalen Remnant, if they even knew you had come here. I know their Witch Hunters are fanatical, but between the camps of bandits, the warlords, and not to mention the swarms of demons they would have to negotiate and fight through, this is not an easy place for them to operate in so far from their homeland.”

“I would not put it past the High Church at having established some presence here by allying with one of the local factions,” Aranei said.

Kristoff nodded at this. “It's possible, Sarnia is aggressive and expansionist. I know Verden is thought to have a web of alliances to undermine the Soldor Bastion and keep Dalen from being reunited under a sole ruler.”

“The High Church and the Verdish Inquisition seem to be men cut from the same cloth,” Aranei observed. “Could they be allied to each other?”

"Perhaps in secret to some degree,” Kristoff said. “But I've heard nothing to substantiate it. Verden certainly didn't give Sarnia any aid during their war with Aelmere. I think you should rest easy and understand that you are likely safe from them here. As Lady Silika told you when you arrived, powerful magics protect this place, and we all watch out for one another.”

“But you wouldn't have guard patrols if we were completely safe,” Aranei pointed out.

“There are still threats, yes. Demons are the worst thing we have to worry about, but more common are wolves coming down from the mountains. You sometimes hear their howls at night. There are smilodons and yetis too. Brodie found some yeti tracks last year.”

“Yetis are real?” Aranei asked in quizzical surprise. “I always figured them to be fairy tales. But with demons running about I shouldn’t be that surprised. Don’t tell Milly.” Aranei gave a small chuckle. “I don’t think she’d sleep for a week.”

“I have never seen one myself so you shouldn't overly worry,” Kristoff said with a smile. “They are said to dwell in higher elevations unless food is scarce.”

“I sure hope so,” Aranei said, “I don’t think we’d fare too well against one…”

Before she could finish speaking the two heard a scream. “That’s Milly!” Aranei’s eyes shot up open wide, and she ran towards the direction of the cry.

“SHOO!” Milly shouted in a panicked sound something between a scream and a sob as she swung a broom at a small, slippery red fox she caught at the henhouse. “Please go away!” she begged it and kept swinging though the broom wasn’t as close to the fox as she thought. With her poor depth perception she was struggling to fend off the creature that was weaving in and out around her feet without any fear at all of her.

“Milly...stop.” A deep voice said from behind her. Milly turned to see Brodie's squat form approaching and waving his hands to get her attention. “It’s okay,” he said, scooping up the fox in his burly arms as it made noises like a laugh. “Rusty won’t hurt you.” He gave the fox a chin skritch. “The little fellow is completely harmless.”

Milly’s good eye was still wide with panic, and adrenaline. “But the chickens!” she said, putting her body protectively between the fox and the gate of the wooden hen house.

“No, it’s alright. Rusty keeps them other bad foxes away,” Brodie said and saw the doubt in her face. “No really, he does. It’s his turf and they know it because he marks it,” the dwarf added. “Not many of them get in here anyway.”

“But...but he was pacing around staring at the chickens,” she squeaked out. “He was trying to get in. I know it!”

“He was probably just trying to play,” Brodie said. “Rusty is still young yet, and I don’t think he’d even know what to do if he got in there. He won’t eat anything he doesn't see me eating.”

“Are you telling me that fox is your pet or something? Why would you even have a fox as a pet?” Milly asked, finally letting the broom rest on the ground, her arms tired, and fear fueled adrenaline gone.

Brodie stroked Rusty’s head. “Lord Cartagan, an arrogant toff who lives over in the next valley was having a fox hunt and was gonna just kill this little fellow for so-called sport,” the dwarf said disgustedly. “I was passing by and heard the hounds barking and just couldn’t let Rusty die like that, and so I rescued him. I think he's from a late litter. He was very small when I found him last autumn and is still not mature yet.”

Milly strained for patience.. “Brodie... foxes are predators.”

Brodie laughed. “No, not Rusty. I've never seen him even kill a grasshopper.”

“Are you alright?” Aranei asked as she and Kristoff arrived, running up.

The former Aelmerian knight quickly saw what the problem had been and smiled. “Don’t worry, Milly. Brodie just likes to take in stray animals. Last year was Dieb the racoon, and before that was Mama the Opossum. All of them are tame enough, though I don’t advise picking them up like Brodie does. He’s got a way with animals.”

“It's a gift,” Brodie said, scratching Rusty behind the ears.

“Just keep him away from the chickens, please,” Milly said, picking up the basket of eggs she had collected.

“Let me walk you back home,” Aranei said to Milly who was still clearly very agitated. “I’ll catch up with you in a little bit, Kristoff.”

Kristoff gave her an understanding nod and then turned to the dwarf, “I must ask you Brodie, at the very least, to keep Rusty away from the hens when Milly is about. She has been through a terrible ordeal and doesn't need the stress.”

Brodie shrugged. “I can try, but you know how Rusty is; the little rascal likes to run and explore and I don’t want to tie him up or anything,” the dwarf said, setting the fox down on the ground again who gave an excited yip and rushed over to greet Kristoff.

Back at their home, Milly placed the basket of eggs on the kitchen table. “Doesn’t having a fox around the hens bother you?” she complained to Aranei. “One fox could kill them all in less than a minute. They kill lambs and baby goats and anything else that can't defend themselves. It's in their nature.”

“It is, and you were brave to defend those chickens,” Aranei told her.

“Brave? Are you making fun of me?” Milly questioned. “You don’t think I looked silly defending them from something supposedly ‘harmless’, even a little?”

“I don’t mind if you do look a bit silly,” Aranei said, kissing Milly’s forehead. “And you’re allowed to worry over the chickens. You are right that they can’t defend themselves as well as you can defend them. Let me help you put the eggs away, and then I have to finish the patrol with Kristoff.” Aranei turned back to the basket and stopped short. “Milly, look! One of them is moving!”

“Really?” she said, leaning in to see. “Oh my, you are right it is. What do we do?”

Aranei responded with a helpless shake of her head. “I don't know. I’ve never hatched a chicken before. I think they just come out on their own and you need to be around to make sure it's warm after it hatches.”

The egg trembled and cracked as a tiny yellow beak began to poke its way through, chipping away at the shell to get free.

“Do you think we should check the others?” Milly asked. “I don’t even know how we’d do that.”

“Brodie might, he’s been here long enough to probably know a bit about all the jobs in town. I’ll go find him,” Aranei said. She quickly left the house and walked down the street to Brodie’s residence that was part home and part workshop.

Pushing through the unlocked side door, she entered his cluttered work space on the ground floor. A shelf full of books and scrolls occupied most of one of the stone walls. A profusion of tools littered a heavy oak table, the wood grey from age and pitted with old and new scars. Aranei noted the instruments of the jewlery trade: small hammers, chisels, brushes, and magnifying glasses, and all manner of other things she could not give name to. Seated in a carved wooden chair, Brodie had a monocle raised against his eye and was holding up a sparkling green gem in his other hand between his pudgy thumb and forefinger.

“That's a beautiful stone,” she told him. “Is it an emerald?”

“One this size? I wish,” Brodie said. “No, it's a peridot. Not as rare or valuable, but the gems have a calming influence on the wearer. They defend against negative emotions due to their structure and mineral content. I was thinking of giving this one to Milly as a gift in apology for being so frightened by Rusty.”

Aranei smiled. “Oh you don't have to do that. Milly wasn't cross at you, and that is something far too expensive to just give away...”

“It's not cheap, but I have more than a few in my inventory. I once had a whole jewellery shop of my own...” For a moment the old dwarf sat there, swept away in memories of Opra Dale and so many friends lost. “Was there something you wanted?” he asked when he finally remembered she was standing there.

Aranei nodded. “Yes, I wanted to know if you knew how to check eggs for chicks? Milly took a fertile one by accident that’s hatching in our kitchen and she wants to make sure the others aren’t going to start hatching too. She can put them back if they are...”

Brodie scratched his chin under his bushy grey beard. “Reckon if I recall correctly you hold them over a candle so you can see inside. If you can see through the shell mostly it’s probably good to eat, but if it’s not then it’s probably got a chick inside.”

“That makes sense, thank you.” Aranei smiled. “I’ll tell Milly.”

“Okay, but don't tell her about my present,” Brodie said, holding up the gem. “I want to first get it just perfect before setting the stone in a pendant...”

Aranei shook her head, continually amazed at how generous, kind, and supportive these townsfolk were compared to those in Brinerest. It was like they all knew what it was like to lose everything and any selfishness and ego had been purged from their hearts long ago and replaced with a love of others and their community. How wonderful the world would be if all were like this and not just thinking of themselves all the time.

She bent down and stroked Rusty's soft red-orange fur who had been trying to get her attention before heading back to the house where another vulnerable new life had just been born. Perhaps she and Milly ought to take a cue from Brodie and keep the chick as their special pet.

"I think I'll call her Nugget," Milly said back at the house, holding the small chick in her hands.

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