I was back on the mountain path, lying on my back in the snow. The sun was shining, and in spite of the cold creeping up through my damp clothes I wasn't uncomfortable.
Footsteps approached and a shadow fell over me. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself", Agromas told me. He put out his hand and helped me up. Avoiding his eyes I wiped the snow off the back of my clothes.
"Let's walk", he said. We began to climb the mountain path.
"Did you see what happened in the cave?" I asked him.
"Was any of it real?"
He gave me an odd look. "Of course it was real. You remember what I told you about stories, how they're like parasites always looking for a host? You found the one story that Azeara needed to hear, and you released it into the world. It proved to be stronger than the story he had used to imprison her, and it allowed her to escape."
"Will he be able to get her back?"
"No. Now that she's gone, she's gone forever."
"Good", I said. For his sake I added "You've taught me well."
"No, I haven't. I was a miserable failure as your teacher. And of all the things that I've done wrong in my life, that's what I regret most."
We walked in silence for a while.
"Are you…" I began.
"…dead? Yes", he said. He caught me looking at him. "Oh, don't be alarmed. I was given a choice, and I decided to stay until my work was done."
"So there's hope, then?"
"And despair. Don't forget about despair. More great deeds were born from despair than from anything else in this world." With that he was gone.
I woke up, my mind full of unanswered questions. Late morning light was streaming in through the barred window.
"Good morning", a woman's voice said. I jumped up and turned toward her, ready to defend myself. The blond woman who had been at the meeting in Stillwater was on a chair in my cell, the back of the chair pushed against the fence that separated the cell from the corridor.
"I'm sorry", she said. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"That's quite alright", I said. I sat down on the bunk, never taking my eyes off her.
She looked away, and I noticed she was blushing. "I'd like to know what happened out there", she said.
"I'm not sure. Quite a lot of what I thought had happened turned out not to be true." I then told her about the ambush, about Lora and Azeara. I even told her about my encounters with the dead guard and Agromas. When I told her about Lora I began to worry about what she would think of me, and I started telling her about Rhiana and Jorden and how I had lost my home and my family. It was a long story, and she didn't interrupt me even once. I didn't tell her about him, though I'm not sure why not.
She looked up and her eyes met mine. "The guards' names were Beron and Farren", she said. "I've known them both for years. Beron's dead, and Farren's still unconscious. We're not sure whether he's going to make it."
I didn't know what to say.
"The man who attacked you was Beron's older brother. He's been taking care of Beron since their parents died."
She took a deep breath. "I've never been on active duty. They wouldn't let me. They were probably right, too. I just saw them go in, and I saw them come out again. Those that did come out, that is. Most didn't. Those who did were strange and dangerous. I sat with them, sometimes for days. Eventually they all started talking and I would listen to them. I turned out to be good at that. Often I would be able to bring back those who seemed lost."
She looked at me. "I thought it was over, storyteller. And then you came along. And now Beron is dead. That's one death too many. Can you understand that, storyteller? Too much. I feel like every bone in my body is breaking under the weight, my flesh is being torn apart, and once I start screaming I'll never be able to stop. Can you understand that?"
"Do you think I had anything to do with his death?""No", she said. "though I'd sure as hell like to."
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