All seasons end

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Erin was a good girl. She helped her mother clean the linen every morning, washing it by the stream then hanging it from the trees to air dry for a time before transferring it to the racks so that it would be ready for the beds the following day. It was very important to have clean linen on beds, her mother said, so that travellers and visitors would always feel welcome, and tell others than Lagnin was a sophisticated village which knew how to look after people.

After cleaning, she then helped gather eggs, pick herbs and chop vegetables for dinner. She really wanted to go hunting, or at least help slaughter the goats and chickens, but her father said that was the sort of thing that only boys did, which made her a little sad. Maybe when she was older she could change the rules.

The second day of the week was the best day because it meant the airship would be arriving to collect the latest haul of ice brought down from the glacier. Erin's father always said that Lagnin was the most important town in the valley - always a town, never a village - because it was perfectly positioned between the mountains and the capital, and the fancy people in Treydolain would pay through the nose for fresh ice. She never understood why people in the capital didn't have their own ice. Or why they paid for things with their noses.

Even though Lagnin was situated on a river that led to the city, airship was still the fastest way to transport the ice without it melting. The rivers in the south wound their way downstream too lazily to be useful for anything perishable. Erin would always get her jobs done extra fast when the airship was due so that she could watch it dock and greet the big people from the palace. It wasn't like meeting the queen - she never came to Lagnin - but it felt almost as good.

Running through the half-frozen muddy streets of Lagnin, Erin looked to the grey skies as she approached the mooring station, built on the outskirts away from the houses and the inn. The wooden structure was the tallest anywhere in a twenty mile radius, a complex lattice of scaffolding and walkways with a small guard office at its base and a hut perched atop to keep the dockhands sheltered in the winter months.

Fortunately for everyone it was late spring, which meant fewer socks, cosier nights and days spent in the sun for Erin. It made it harder for the ice gatherers, who had to travel farther up the glacier to find supplies to cut and haul back, but for the rest of the locals the change of weather was more than welcome and long overdue.

Up she climbed, holding the railing tight as she jumped up each step, which were clearly not designed for someone of her diminutive stature, a tiny human dot zig-zagging her way up the towering scaffold. She ascended above the surrounding forest, her view extending dramatically out over the valley. And there was the airship, still a mile off, scudding above the treetops, its cabin slung beneath the long, reinforced balloon emblazoned with the red and gold seal of the royal family. One day, Erin knew, she would board an airship and go on big adventures. When she was grown up.

The airship's propellers buzzed and pivoted, directing its course against the light wind from the west, its mass shifting reluctantly against its momentum. Erin stood on the dock, small, rough hands gripping the railing, looking out as the great vehicle made its approach. It drifted in, slowly and gracefully, and the noise of the propellers intensified as the pilot slowed it nearly to a halt, holding it steady against the air currents. Erin kept back as the anchors were launched from the side, skittering across the dock, where the dock crew dragged them over to their fixing slots. A shout went up, then the cables pulled taut and the airship was ratcheted in, until its cabin nestled comfortably into the mooring booth. Half a minute later the passenger door unsealed, dropping down onto the walkway with a heavy clang.

As was almost always the case, Roldan Stryke was the first person to appear on the ramp, pausing in the doorway for a moment, assessing his surroundings, smelling the air, before striding out onto the dock. He wasn't especially tall but he was sternly built, with broad shoulders and a face that told a hundred painful stories. His long, grey hair was tied tightly behind his head, while his stubble didn't quite form a beard but instead sat raggedly about his neck and chin. He wore a practical outfit, blending tough hides that a man on the road would need with small flourishes that betrayed his place at the court, overlaid with pieces of carefully selected and positioned armour - nothing heavy, but a little extra protection around his chest, his groin, his neck. Roldan Stryke didn't like being surprised, so he made sure he was always ready for anything. Nobody survived as a King's Eye as long as he had without being able to adapt.

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