“I see.” She looked at the door to the outside. Trees and fallen leaves were visible through the gap. “Are we still in the woods with the crow roosts? Near Sorcery Tor?”
“Crow Hall Woods, yes, yes. What of it?”
“Then Dapple will find me sooner or later.” She turned to the man. “I swear to you I’ll not hurt you, nor try to take you’re little dagger.”
“The Anthame Perilous is no little dagger.” Spittle was forming on his lower lip. “Insult not the ancient power of she who undoes all.”
“Yes, yes. Whatsoever you say. I’m going to go out and sit on a fallen tree or something. Unless you want me to try and make you up something to eat?” she looked around, not wholly convinced that there was anything edible in the place. Certainly, she didn’t feel inclined to start rooting around without the sort of leather gloves pig-farmers use.
“Ah, you mean to poison me then!” he said, accusing. He raised the dagger. “I’ll slit you from gullet to bladder.”
“If that’s how you want it, fine.” She backed away, not willing to turn her back to the old man. He might have been wretchedly old and frail, but that flint dagger had real power in it. It was dangerous, even if the old man was barely able to lift it. When she was at the door, she stepped into the pale sunlight outside, gently closed the door and went to sit on a nearby fallen oak trunk. Sounds of something heavy being moved around came from within the hut. It took the man maybe five minutes or more to move the object about, but finally there was a scraping noise, and a thud as he pushed something heavy up into the door from the inside. Evidently he did not trust his her either.
She sat and whistled to herself for a while, then sang a little, watching two robins play in the leaves and hunt for grubs and spiders. Caewen had somewhat expected the half-dead woman to reappear, but she did not. After a while, bored, she tried calling out Dapplegrim’s name, two or three more times. On the third attempt, she heard him reply. Faint and far away, “Caewen!” came back to her.
“Over here!” she called.
Not long after he appeared–a grey and black dappled shape in the furthest trees, galloping. She waved. “It’s alright. I’m alright.”
When Dapplegrim arrived, he was breathing hard, angry and skittish. He looked her up and down closely, then sniffed at her, as if checking to see if she really was Caewen. “No tricks. It’s me.”
“Ah, but a phantasm or illusory spell would say that, wouldn’t it?”
“Hm. Hur. Well you do smell like you. And it is mostly difficult to trick the nose. Smell is too primal.” He paused. “Though the deathly spirit woman has already tricked my nose once, so…” He eyed her suspiciously.
“Sniff all you want you cantankerous old blusterer, I am definitely me.”
“Hm. That is something Caewen would say. For now, I’ll believe that you are you.” He reflected. “And I am probably me too. I’m pretty well sure of that.” He nodded his head towards the cottage. “What was that all about? The old woman grabbed you and then you both just upped and vanished.”
“I suppose it is a part of some old ritual? A test. Although I don’t know if I passed or failed. The old man in the cottage thinks I failed when I chose not to kill him and take the magical wotsit he is protecting.”
“Good choice.” said Dapplegrim. His eyes gleamed a dull red. “Magical wotsits. That sort of thing usually goes badly.”
“I’m not an idiot. But…” here she hesitated. “I was tempted, Dapple. I really was tempted. I could feel it. Hell’s high hall. It was powerful.”
“And I walked away. I’m here now talking to you, aren’t I? My old self. Nothing odd here,” she said, indicating a hand towards herself. “Or not any more than usual.” She didn’t give Dapplegrim time to add anything before saying, “There was another thing too. He seemed to be aware of the Winter King. He didn’t know much, I think… it was hard to tell… but the old man was definitely aware of the Winter King. He thought maybe I was an ally of the king.”
“Because of the ice-magic? It’s still lingering around you strongly then? It would make sense, if he mistook the musk of it for the king’s magic.”
Dapplegrim twitched one ear. He struck a thoughtful pose that looked almost funny. “What does that mean then, I wonder?”
“It means Tamsin may have been right. It means that the Winter King is enough of a growing menace that some magicians are already noticing him, even crazy old hermit magicians. It means there may be a war coming. It means someone might listen to us after all.”