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The messenger hawk is only odd because it wears a band of Turn-russet around one leg. I'm more used to seeing Carvel-green, or, if Mum can scrape together enough to cover the expense of a hawk and the emergency is dire enough, Dom-amethyst.

It lands first on a branch close to Kintyre's head, overhanging the stream where Kin is grumpily scrubbing our travel pots out with sand. As he always does, Kin ignores the ruddy thing. The hawk chirrups in disdain and hops down to the ground. It bobbles over to me like a grouchy pigeon, sidestepping the still smoking ashes of my morning cookfire. I was in the middle of packing away our leftovers, so I've got some jerky in my hand. I offer it up, and the hawk snips at it daintily, careful of my fingers. The beast is probably the politest of the three of us. Kin and I don't work too hard on our table manners when we're out-of-doors.

"Never know why you lot always go to Kin first," I say, wiping jerky grease on my trousers and then shaking a finger at the hawk. "I'm the one that feeds ya."

As a kind of answer, the hawk fluffs up in the sunlight, resettling its feathers after what has probably been a long flight. I've always liked how sleek the creatures are, how deadly, and at the same time, how much they look like a curious cuddle toy. The hawk lets me scritch along the crest between its eyes, crooning. I smooth back the small plume of white that marks this bird as a messenger, as one of the breed clever enough to recognize different human faces and follow simple verbal commands. Dead useful things, these birds.

Appeased, the hawk lifts its foot and I untie its burden. Covering a yawn—didn't sleep so well last night—I wonder if there's enough heat in the embers of our fire to kick it back up and boil another kettle of tea. It's not like Kin and I have anywhere else to be, and the thought of a long, lazy morning fishing and napping is suddenly delicious. Yeah. Could do lots with a day of nothing.

I'm also missing the warmth of the last lassie we left behind, if I'm honest about it. And that of her father's hayloft as well. But we're one day's walk from Estagonnish, and there's no bloody inns between here and the next sprout of farms. Just sparse forest interspersed with wildflower meadows, and the curving sweep of a balls-cold stream.

Good for catching rabbit and eel. Bad for a good night's rest. And after all the adventures we've been on—and enemies we've made—I'm not too keen on sleeping out in the open. Or, really, anywhere that's lacking a roof and walls, a door that can be boobytrapped, and a window that makes noise when it's broken. Sleeping out under the stars sounds heroic when I write that sort of drivel, but in reality, it fills me with wary paranoia. And it's bloody chilly to boot. 'Cause unless there's a pair of tits between us, Kintyre's not too keen on sharing body heat.

Shame, that.

Of course, this bone-weariness knifing through me doesn't just stem from bad sleep. Not even really from our most recent quest, or from the bloody great sword-fight it took to vanquish the Dark Elf. No. It's from the many, many houses filled with so many grieving people.

I am wrung out from comforting so many husbands and wives, parents, children, and lovers while returning the jars of eyes stolen and collected by the Elf. Their grief is like a greasy smear against my skin. I feel a hundred years old, pulled loose and weak by the weight of it.

Sadness always makes me absolutely bagged.

I yawn again and try to cover my mouth, then wince, juggling the hawk's note into my off hand. Writer's nutsack, that aches. In my morning haze, I forgot that I wrenched my wrist in the fight. I'm going to have to rewrap it soon. Or maybe I should go shove my arm into the stream for a bit, see if the cold won't do some of its own magic on the swelling.

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