Several wooden poles had been sunk into the ground to support a sort of overhanging porch of thatch at the front of the house. There was a small table and a single stool. A trencher and cracked old mug sat on the table, some remnants of dried food crusted to the former. There was no telling how long ago that meal had been left out on the table. Caewen carefully pushed at the door with a foot. It creaked a little. “Hello?” she said, half-expecting to smell something dead inside. It seemed like the sort of place where you’d find a body, rotting and forgotten.
It turned out to not smell of rot, but it certainly had a smell. There was a thick, musty body-stink inside. It was unpleasant enough to force Caewen to take small, shallow breaths as she stepped into the space, covering her mouth with a sleeve. A movement and a rustle at the far end of the darkened cottage interior suggesting that someone was still living in the place. “Hello?” she tried again.
“I’m not dead yet,” croaked a voice from the darkness. Fragile wet coughing followed. “You can’t have it. It is mine, and you’ll have to kill me to take it.”
Caewen’s eyes adjusted slowly. The interior was a pigsty, metaphorically speaking. Aside from the clutter of old broken furnishings, the shelves full of rubbish, the dirt over the floor, it seemed that whoever was living here had taken to using one corner of the cottage as a latrine instead of going outside. It was filthy and it smelled worse than any farm dungheap that Caewen had ever chanced past. Cowering in a corner of the room was an ancient man, hair gone except for a few strands, skin like shrivelled greyed paper. His eyes were feverishly bright, though they stared with blind wetness.
“It’s alright,” said Caewen. “I’m not here to take anything. Are you alright?” She winced at the thought of touching anything, but said, all the same, “Can I help?” She desperately hoped he did not ask her to tidy up the place.
“No!” he spat. “Get away from me, you witch! She sent you, I know she did. I’m no fool. You think I’d forget how I came to have it? You think I’d forget the colour of the blood? All that blood. Red and sticky.” He was breathing heavily, rapidly, and Caewen wondered if he was about to suffer a seizure in the heart. “No. No, I say! Get away from me.” He sniffed then and blinked a few manic times. “Wait. What’s that I taste? Ah! Ah ha! You have coldness hanging about you? Are you one of his then? Did she send you, or did the King who is Coldness?”
Caewen paid sudden close attention. Taking care to reign in any tone that might betray how much she wanted the answer, she said, “Him? You mean the Winter King?”
“Oh yes, maybe you are one of his little witches too then? Yes, yes. I see it all now. Oh, such a clever scheme. He sent you no doubt? He wants it for himself. Well, you can tell him I am aware of him. I have seen visions of him. I know he is coming. And you can tell him to go spin on a broom-handle. Oh. Betrayals within betrayals. Ah! I see it all. Treachery. She wants a spy in his camp, no doubt? Oh, you must be so proud and happy. Here, m’lady, have this gift. Oh, no, here, m’lady, have this other gift. Work for me! No, work me me!” He spat on the floor. It was so filthy that a gob of spit hardly made a difference. “You must be right chuffed. Well, look at me, will you! Look what has come to me! I took all her gifts, yes, and look at what I am now! She is laughing. I was proud once. I had power at my feet. But this is her moment now. Life and youth fades, and then she sends someone else to take away what she gave. And so it goes. Forever and forever. One bloodied hand to another.”
She understood then. “You have something that the half-dead lady sent you to take away from someone else. And now you think I want to take it from you?”
He straightened up as tall as he could manage, and drew out a trembling hand. He swayed and trembled so much that he looked as if he might fall over all on his own. “I’m not done yet. I’m not dying yet. I don’t want to die, and you can’t kill me. I slaughtered a hundred supplicants before you were born. I’ll do you for it too.” What he clutched in his bone-thin fingers was a broad flat dagger made of a dark sharp stone. Probably flint, though Caewen couldn’t be sure. Up in the mountains the farmers sometimes found old flint arrowheads in the ploughed fields, and though some said they were arrows of the Awvish Folk, others asserted just as surely that people had made them, a long time before there was steel, before iron, and bronze or copper, long ago. Caewen knew from the visions she had seen of the tribe of the wolves that people had passed through many ages of stone and campfire before they had discovered steel and furnace. The knife he was waving at her was very old. It had been cut from raw stone thousands of years ago, at the very least, and charged with magic. Now that it was out in the open, she could feel the humming song of its power against her skin. It was an object of deep old power.
She could feel the desire grow in her to take it. Her mouth actually started to water, as if she was hungry. She had to stop herself from shaking. An object like that would be a fathomless well, an endless sink to draw power from. With that dagger in her hands, all the small bits of knowledge that she could feel half-swallowed at the back of her brain would emerge bright and full into her mind. She would be a sorceress out of the stories and bogey-tales, no longer some farm-whelp with a few smatterings of mostly useless, mostly accidentally acquired arcane lore rattling around in her memories.
She swallowed hard and pressed her teeth together inside her lips, tensing the muscles in her jaws, her throat. “No,” she said. “I don’t care what that thing is you have. I’ll not murder an old man in cold blood to take it. I will not.”
He stared at her with his wet, blind eyes. “Then you fail her test.”
“I do not care. I will not sink to that.”
His breathing remained ragged, but calmed a little. “She’ll only send another. And another. I’ve fended off so many would-be assassins over the years. I’ve done her bidding, loyally, and been her servant, and at every turn there is a knife waiting.” His words grew quieter. “Others have turned away, too, before you. You’re not the first to turn all goody-me-better. Don’t think you’re special.”
She felt then a bitter wave of sadness for the man. “The half-dead woman gave you an object of old power and then endlessly sent others to take it away?”
“It is the way. If I am not strong enough to hold off contenders, then I am not strong enough to be her faithful servant. If she has a task for me, she must know that I will not fail in it.”