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Ch. 16 - Choice

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Lacey went to the Herd side of the Wished camp. It was quieter. There was no campfire. The Wished mingled placidly, some sitting outside the front of their huts, others coming to visit. They gathered in sunny corners to mend and sew, or whittle and carve. 

Ezerelle, the leader of the Wished lived in a hut that looked a lot like Cooper’s, except that it was made for a full sized person. It was not centrally located or set apart from the others in any way. It was right at the edge of the camp though, beside an expanse of grass that ended in a distant line of pine trees. The Wish Wood surrounded the camp, but somehow seemed a little farther away from this spot. 

Lacey tapped on the door. It opened and Ezerelle beckoned her inside. The deer-woman regarded her with soft, wide eyes for a long moment.

Lacey looked around in the awkward silence. Sunlight suffused the hut through a large opening that took up most of the back wall—it was more like a half-wall with a roll of hide to cover the open half in times of inclement weather. Even though there was a fall chill in the air, the hide was currently cinched above the pane-less window, offering a panoramic view of the fields behind the hut.

Finally, Ezerelle stepped forward and swept her arms around Lacey in an intense hug. Her downy fur was like a soft blanket. It kind of felt like the blanket from Goeden. Lacey shrugged out from the embrace and sat down on a bench positioned by the window. Ezerelle sat beside her and gazed out at the yellowed meadow, her black deer-nose tipped up slightly as if to catch a scent. Upon closer inspection the view was not as beautiful as it had seemed. In the summer it would be a sight to see, but right now it was just skeletal brown flower heads and brittle grasses, blotched with mildew.

Upon closer inspection, Ezerelle was not the vaulted leader she had appeared to be among her people when she had saved Lacey from Goeden’s mob. Her ears flicked as she waited for Lacey to say something, and her expression shifted from one fleeting emotion to the next. Was this the same woman?

Lacey wanted to ask her a lot of things. How could she let Goeden and his cats run wild? What kind of leader was she? Did she just spend all her days hidden away watching these fields slowly rot? But her anger and bitterness faded as she sat beside the deer-woman. Ezerelle’s presence radiated comfort. 

“I made my choice,” Lacey said, shaking off the contented feeling, so she could focus on what she came here to do.

For a moment, Ezerelle looked like a tired old woman. The long angle of the sun’s rays made her fur seem almost gray. But then her face brightened and she patted Lacey’s knee. “You do not need to make a choice right now, Lacey. Think about it as long as you wish. There’s no rush. Goeden is eager for you to choose, because he believes it will tip the balance in his favor if there are more Hunters. But you are welcome among us no matter how long you take to decide.”

“And you aren’t in a rush, because you don’t want him to have that power?” Some of Lacey’s anxiety returned.

“What Goeden believes, and what the rest of the camp believes are not the same thing. Neither of them are the truth.”

Lacey frowned. Would making her choice allow Goeden to take over? 

“How many are Hunter and how many are Herd?” Lacey asked.

Ezerelle tapped her fingers like she was counting. “Thirty-six Hunter, and thirty-eight Herd.” 

“So, if I choose Hunter, Goeden won’t become the new leader of the Wished.”

Ezerelle gave her a motherly smile. “No, that will not happen.”

“But if I don’t choose, I can still stay here as long as I want?” Lacey thought there had to be a catch.

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