READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Marrow Charm by Kristin Jacques
The gap between the blacksmith and Morgan's Drink House was just wide enough for Azzy and her pickaxe to squeeze through. The soot-covered apprentices and hungover patrons paid little attention to the lone girl sneaking off between the buildings. None of them would snitch on her—they hated the Elder as much as she did.
The damp air outside the Heap belied the dangers of the dark. She kept a sharp ear out for the ever-present threat of grimwerms, trailing her fingers along the slick wall of the main tunnel to guide her. A light would be discovered by the watchers at the gate, and Azzy found her way better in the dark. Light made too many shadows, made her miss things. She would have missed this opening if she relied on so simple a sense as sight.
The chill caught her attention, that teasing hint of air so cold it nipped her trailing fingers. She crouched down, tentatively dipping her hand into the hole, holding her breath as she waited for another gust of air to reach her. There!
No guarantee that the crevice wouldn't peter out into a dead end or narrow too much for her to crawl through. The massive grimwerms constantly burrowed through, where their maggot-pale bulk upset and collapsed the earth into new configurations. The walls were snug against her shoulders as she crawled inside, but she pressed on, goaded by the whisper of icy air. She reached for a jut of rock to pull herself forward and stopped, marveling at the faint glow of her skin. There was light ahead, weak and gray, but pure—nothing like the filmy luminescence of the day lamps.
Eager, she scrambled forward, blinded by the sudden influx of light as she tumbled into wet, white powder. She gasped at the sensation and squeezed her eyes shut until the light didn't scald her closed lids. Blinking rapidly, she forced them to adjust, opening them wide at last. The numbness in her fingers and penetrating chill that seeped up from her knees were forgotten at the sight before her.
Azzy could count on one hand the number of times she'd ventured to the Above. Each time left her breathless. Stars sparked like trapped gems in a swirling mass of velvety purple and deep blue. Their light reflected off the white blanketing the ground, revealing snow, chips of diamond that covered every inch of the land. She rose to her feet, laughing as she spun, head flung back to the heavens.
The stars felt physically close, as if she could reach up and skim her fingers against the underbelly of that endless velvet dark. Her mama told her stories of how people once rode through the sky on metal wings. She wondered if they could touch the stars. Azzy stopped her spinning abruptly as she thought of her mother. Her reason for risking this little excursion weighed on her anew, draining away her elation. Time to get to work.
The moon hung low and full, either rising or setting over the horizon, she couldn't be sure. The solitary howl of some animal sounded in the distance, low and mournful and a firm reminder to be swift with her task. If the tunnels were dangerous, the Above was worse by a hundredfold. “Grab anything green, grab any plants you can find”—those were her goals.
Azzy unhooked the scraper blade strapped to her leg and knelt to peel the moss and lichen clinging to the rocks. “Moss for rashes, lichen to strengthen the body’s defenses.” She continued her mental recitation as she wrapped each individual sample in separating cloth. The necessity of speed and meticulous care sent a tremor through her arms. Biting the inside of her cheek, she ripped the bark from the surrounding trees. Strip, wrap, strip, wrap. She could hear the familiar lecture on cross-contamination droning on in her head, steadying her movements. This was too important to muck up. Azzy knelt and scraped back the snow to dig out the dried shoots of sleeping plants, anything and everything she could think of to restock the Apothecary's supplies. Someone had to; the Foragers had been gone for nearly two months. Their supplies were perilously low. She couldn't procure the more exotic ingredients to refill all that had run out but having nothing on hand was a dangerous position for an apothecary, especially after her brother’s episode last night...
Another howl cut through the air, much closer than before, choked at the end. Azzy looked up, staring through the dark columns of snow-covered trees. A high-pitched whine emanated from within, filled with pain and fear. The sound stroked her skin like the point of a blade, made the hair rise on her arms. Exchanging the scraper for her pickaxe, she moved forward, scanning her surroundings for the danger.
A rough-barked tree snagged on her clothing.
Azzy looked down, puzzled by the translucent threads trailing from her sleeve, catching on the bark. She pulled away. The threads went taut. The bark ripped away, so suddenly that Azzy rocked on her heels. She froze, her breath caught in her throat, following the threads to denser strands of gauzy white that laced through the higher branches. Not threads—web. The sparse canopy of trees was interconnected with swaths of webs, twisting in the wind with a soft clicking sound. They were entangled with bones, hung like macabre wind chimes. Broken skulls leered down at her.
She swallowed hard. Screams were for fools and food; Azzy refused to be either. Of course, she was a fool for blithely wandering into a winnowrook's web. A grotesque melding of crow and spider far larger than either, winnowrooks were an all too common predator. Every time she ventured to the Above, their infestation of the area seemed to spread. but she wasn’t caught, not yet. She took a step back. Movement thrashed in the corner of her eye. She bit her tongue bloody to keep from crying out. A pitiful whine reached her ears, wrapping around her better judgment as her traitorous gaze followed the sound to its source.
A massive wolf dangled a foot off the ground from the thick gray cords, his twisted position giving her an eyeful of his anatomy. He wrenched against the web, painting it red. The threads were so tight around his body they cut through the thick pelt of mottled black and gray fur. He was killing himself. The more he fought, the tighter the web would constrict until it cut off his air or he bled to death. He jerked into a halting spin, half facing her. His pale yellow eyes were sightless and wild, so panicked he didn't see her standing there.
His dying movements would draw them out, and soon, with the delectable promise of fresh meat. Azzy had to flee, run for the safety of the caves before the winnowrooks descended from the treetops like spidery angels of death. She holstered her axe and bent her knees, prepared to run away. The wolf's choking whimper made her pause. Her breath shuddered with her hesitation, her body vibrating on the edge of indecision. Her thoughts bordered on madness.
Don't be stupid, Azzy, he's already dead, he just can’t accept it yet.
She chewed on her lip, listening hard for the telltale skitter-skatter of claws on silk as she tapped the scraper knife strapped to her thigh. It went against every instinct, every inner voice that screamed at her to run except one—one tiny niggling voice that made her spin around in the snow. She palmed her blade as she rushed for the wolf.
Death smelled sweet, of warm sucrose against the clean wet snow.
A devious weapon—the cloying scent of the winnowrooks, evoking memories of hearth and home, and the sweet treats of childhood. It teased her nostrils as her blade snagged against the strands binding the wolf's rear flank. She gritted her teeth and sawed, the blade not made for this sort of cut. She would leave his jaw for last—sensible, as he lashed out blindly at her presence, brushing against her hard enough she nearly lost her footing. She spread her legs to ground herself and hewed at the webs. There was no room for error, not when the bones began to click and rattle overhead.
Snap. One hind leg free, the severed web released enough weight to drop the wolf back to the ground. The beast startled and lunged forward. A thread nearly sliced off his ear. Azzy grabbed his entrapped jaw, breathing hard as she tried to hold him steady, mentally begging for him to calm. She sawed at the next thick strand. The bones sang their click clack warning song from the high branches, reaching a desperate crescendo that ended with eerie silence. She shuddered and kept sawing.
The smell enveloped her, curling around her like cooling sweet cakes fresh from the fire at first light strike. Azzy didn't dare turn around. She knew what crept toward her, watching for its shadow out of the corner of her eye. Snap, another thread cut. She doubled her efforts, hacking at the last stubborn mass of webbing. The wolf went still, his yellow eyes focused, settling on her briefly before shifting over her shoulder. A low growl rumbled from his chest as a spindly shadow stretched across the snow at her feet. Her muscles tensed. Azzy changed her grip on the blade.
She pivoted, jumping back as the winnowrook's claw-tipped leg descended. It wasn't far enough. Hooked claws sliced through her layers of clothing to draw a long burning line between her breasts. She yelped and slashed wildly in return. It was pure luck she caught the winnowrook across one of its eyes, distracting it with pain. It reared with a screech, limbs flailing. Its feathery lower body slammed into her and pinned her against the wolf. The winnowrook’s blood smoked on her skin, not hot but cold, ice searing her flesh. She had no breath to gasp, her lungs pinched between her ribs. Her grip was slicked by blood, both from the wolf and the winnowrook, but she managed to twist her arm back and cut the last knot of web with a desperate yank.
Azzy and the wolf tumbled away from the scrabbling winnowrook. The consequence was the loss of her knife, flung away into the snow. She rolled to her knees, pulling her pickaxe from the holster on her back as the winnowrook shook off its injury and set its remaining seven eyes on her. Its beak opened to emit a crackling hiss, dead leaves over stone. The pinfeather ruff that crowned its head stood on end. It lifted the upper half of its segmented body, legs splayed in a gesture of pure aggression.
Azzy braced herself and clenched her pickaxe tight in front of her. No time for regrets and thoughts of unkept promises—she’d go down fighting. The wolf flew over her head, a streak of gray and red. He latched his bloodied jaws on the monster's exposed underbelly and tore into it. The winnowrook was massive, but it was no match for the injured beast. With a snarl, the wolf whipped his head, taking a chunk of the monster with it. Dark blood spilled over the muddied snow, sending plumes of sweet-smelling smoke into the air. Its rattling scream numbed her ears and made her molars ache. She watched—terrified, transfixed—as the wolf tore into it, again and again, ripping away a piece each time until the winnowrook collapsed to the ground in a pool of black fluid. Its eyes paled, milky at the moment of its death.
She released a shaky breath. The cut between her breasts throbbed. The wolf cleaned his muzzle in a snowdrift, wiping off the winnowrook's icy blood. Azzy attempted to stand, but her legs were too wobbly to support her weight. She needed to leave, to clear the area before the wolf's attention fell to her.
His head snapped up at her movement. She froze, calling herself all kinds of stupid for freeing the damn thing. What was she thinking? Of course, he was going to turn on her, he was a wild creature, half-mad from the winnowrook’s death trap. Her knuckles turned white on the axe handle. Had she freed the wolf only to kill him now? It felt wrong. Her palms itched. Wrong, this was wrong.
The wolf's lip curled in a sneer, lowering into a hunter's crouch. Azzy's senses fizzed with awareness. The axe slipped from her hands, landing with a thud at her feet. There it was, the same niggling voice, a whisper at the back of her thoughts. She listened, reaching through the torn layers of her shirt to dip a hand in her own blood. The wolf's ears swiveled forward as she lifted her red painted fingertips for him to see.
He padded toward her with hesitant steps, his head tilted. He towered over her kneeling form. His torn nose drew closer, inhaling her scent. Azzy closed the distance, and gently swabbed her blood across his muzzle. Her thumb swept down, through his red slicked fur. She pulled back, drawing her thumb across her forehead, like a ritual, a binding gesture. The wolf drew back with a huff, shaking himself. He leaned in to sniff her again, closer, his great head nuzzling the cut across her chest. A pink tongue darted out, leaving a trail of warmth as he lapped her wound clean. Azzy kept perfectly still until he finished and drew back to stare at her with stunning mead-colored eyes. For a moment, she saw something flicker like lightning in his pupils, before the wolf turned and slunk away.
Azzy remained where she was, too shocked by her survival and her odd impulsive actions to move. Her knees were numb in the snow, the cut between her breasts tingled, and her blood-stained fingers kept curling open and closed. When the cold wet crept up her thighs, she finally forced herself to stand, her legs steady at last. Surveying the carcass of the winnowrook, she gave a strained laugh. She was alive. Azzy retrieved her weapons, thinking of grisly necessities as she cleaned her knife. Her foot nudged one of the winnowrook’s severed legs. This was a treasure trove of exotic ingredients to take home.
Setting her jaw, Azzy crouched down and used her axe to dismantle the pieces she needed. Her brother’s face slipped into her thoughts, his skin pale and bruised, and the voice—that terrible voice that drove her into the tunnels this morning. That voice she’d risk the dangers of Above and the wrath of the Elder to never hear again. Even now, as the adrenaline of her encounter drained away, she felt the return of urgency, the impulse to run home with everything she’d so painstakingly gathered. The words chased one another in her mind, nagging her faster and faster.
The Rot is coming.
Azzy tied up as much as she could carry in the thin dropcloth she used to gather supplies, tucking the scraps of vegetation into her belt to avoid cross-contamination.
It was a tense flight from clearing to cave, digging her heels into the snow to throw herself forward with each step. The very parts she’d fought for might still get her killed. Any blood that leaked through the cloth left a trail of smoke, a flare for predators to follow. By the time she hit the mouth of the tunnel, it clouded around her, pricked at her eyes, and left an acrid taste at the back of her throat.
The tunnel was hell to maneuver. She held onto the memory of Armin shuddering in her arms. The terrible voice echoed in her ears. She kept going, falling into the pattern of her labor, stopping every few inches to pull and push the bulky pieces she collected through the narrowest gaps. The carcass seared her skin white and numb through the cloth. It was a relief to finally stagger into the main tunnels and the warm welcoming dark that caressed her frost-nipped skin.
Bone-weary, she made her way to the Heap. There was no way she could squeeze herself through the alehouse alley. She pushed her exhausted mind to concoct a lie. Luck was on her side as she approached the gates. Cale was on guard, and he was wonderfully drunk.
He blinked at her bloodied appearance, pursing his lips and squinting his eyes in the dim light like a cave mole.
"Azzy? Wha'r'ya doin' out thar?" Judging by the slur in his voice, Cale was already three flasks in for his shift on watch. She smiled and bowed her head. He still stood between her and the safety of the Heap. Best to play respectfully.
"Cale, would you open the gate for me?"
His long nose twitched at her. "What ya got thar?" he nodded at the oozing bundle at her feet. "Smells like bad pipe weed."
She shrugged. "Found a rook cobbled up in an offshoot tunnel. Pretty fresh, too, though I had trouble digging it out," she said as she gestured to her bloody clothing. "Scraped myself up pretty good."
Cale shuddered. The winnowrooks hunted and bred in the Above, but they came into the caves to die, entombing themselves in small hollows. Usually, their bodies made a meal for the scavenger grimwerms, who would knock them loose, though the Foragers would bring Brixby the leftover dregs. It made sense for her to find some, especially when they hadn’t seen a hint of Windham and his crew in the tunnels for weeks. Nothing so fresh as what Azzy had bundled with her. Azzy shuffled nervously, wishing Cale would let her in before someone with sober eyes and nose came by.
The guard shook his head, hawking a lob of spit in the dirt. "Right mess you’ar. Get your arse in here, before Prast's men see ya."
Her smile turned genuine. Cale wedged open the gate long enough for her to drag her haul in, watching the streets instead of the tunnels. Azzy nodded to him, lifting the saturated cloth off the ground. She couldn't afford to leave a trail through the crumbling stone paths of the Heap to Brixby's door. Prast would throw a fit, probably have her in a cell before the lamps went out for the night. The streets were quiet, well past the morning grind; her scavenging must have lasted long past light strike. Armin was going to throttle her.
She made a hobbling dash for Brixby's shop, wincing each time the package slapped her thigh. Her leg was numb by the time she clambered up the stone steps of the Apothecary, easing through the doorway in case there were any patrons inside.
Two hands clamped down on her shoulders. Azzy yipped as they hauled her around to face fuming gray eyes. She groaned inwardly. She'd hoped to avoid a confrontation with Armin until after she’d cleaned up.
"Where have you been?" Her younger brother hissed. Despite the anger in his voice, his hands flitted down her arms, checking her over. His eyes darkened at the sight of her bloody torn shirt. "You're hurt."
Azzy dropped the bundle, lifting her arms to gently shove him off. "I'm fine. Just a scrape while scavenging," she lied, thankful the low lighting of the shop made it difficult for him to see her face. "Where's Brixby?"
Armin winced and looked away. "Nell went into labor this morning. The babe didn't make it. There's to be a Feast this eve."
She froze, her stomach pinching tight at his words. Part of her wished she'd further delayed her return, but then the Elder would surely have noticed her absence. The whole community would be present for the Feast. Her stomach felt hollow, twisting in on itself; she remembered she hadn't eaten since before light strike. A Feast was awful enough without an empty stomach.
The side door swung open, revealing Brixby, dressed in his finest. He paused at the sight of his two wards. His gaze shot to Azzy, fatherly concern evident in his perusal of her rough appearance. He sighed. The fall of his shoulders added a spike of guilt to the churning dread in her gut.
"Store it all in the dry cellar and wash up. We will discuss this later."
"I brought you—"
"Azure," Brixby spoke over her, his green eyes dull, dark as cave moss, surrounded by smudges of exhaustion. She swallowed her words, and the last dregs of exaltation over her successful haul evaporated at his weary expression. She nodded once, carefully gathering what she'd worked so hard to bring home. The dry cellar was behind the shop's counter, connected directly to Brixby's laboratory. She lingered in the quiet room, fighting the pull of exhaustion on her limbs.
She'd waited too long. It had taken one of Armin’s episodes—and that voice—to drive her to the Above. Perhaps if she'd gone sooner, her guardian could've saved Nell's newborn.
But you saved the wolf.
The whisper of thought made her stiffen. She'd saved a monster Above while a child died Below, far from an equal exchange. Tears welled as she reached up to touch the puckered scab over her chest. It would scar.
Far from equal.
We fear magic and those who are tainted by it. So quick to exile these doomed souls, be they innocent youths or beloved spouses. We expel those who fall prey to their own blood and yet use the castoffs, the remnants of twisted fauna and corrupted flora, to cure our ills. Survival has made hypocrites of us all.
Her fingers skimmed the page, her gaze unfocused. She didn’t need to read the words, having memorized them long ago. Her mind was elsewhere, dredging up last night, how her brother had thrashed, helpless, as the words poured from his mouth. The Rot is coming,
"You're stalling," Armin spoke from the doorway. She snapped the journal shut. Her brother pursed his lips. "That is Brixby's, Azzy."
"No, it’s Mother’s. Brixby keeps it safe and I merely borrow it," she said, the back of her neck hot. "If Elder Prast ever saw these pages, he'd have an apoplexy."
"Probably why it's normally kept in a locked drawer, sister mine." Armin took the book from her and tucked it back under her pillow where she'd kept it hidden the past few days. The little bother likely knew it was there the whole time. He turned her to face him, clucking his tongue against his teeth.
"We can't present you like this," he said, frowning at her rumpled skirt and blouse. "Did you pull these out of the bottom of your clothes chest?"
That was exactly what she'd done. "I doubt anyone will mind a few wrinkles on such a somber occasion."
"Least let me fix your hair."
"What's wrong with my hair?" She twined her fingers through an errant strand. Armin wore a pained expression, his features a comical grimace. She glanced sideways at her looking glass. Normally Azzy wore the length in a tight braid or bun at her nape—practical for her activities—but she'd let it down for the Feast. It spilled in a haphazard tumble down her back, full of snarls, and frizzed at the top like a crown of spare white-blonde filaments.
She winced, fishing her comb from the assortment of trinkets cluttering her bedside table. "Right, fix it."
Her brother smirked as his long fingers set to work on the snarled mass. "Don't know why you wear it so long. Preparing to dazzle your future suitors?"
His tone was gently teasing, but it didn't lessen the acute ache in her chest. "I think we both know there are no suitors in my future."
There was a pause before his fingers resumed their delicate work, separating her hair into even sections. "Do you say that because of me or because of Mother?"
Azzy bit her tongue, cursing to herself. Touching upon either subject typically descended into bitter spats between them. Armin never divulged how much memory he possessed of the episodes. It was too frightening, too stressful, especially when Elder Prast kept such a watchful eye on their household. They’d already lost so much.
Armin deftly twisted and twined her hair into a cluster of braids. He was tying the ends when she found her voice again. "Is Brixby furious with me?"
His eyes met hers in the looking glass, so similar to hers in shape but in her brother’s, there were storms. Mother used to say Armin was the rain to Azzy’s sun.
"He could never stay mad at you. He's angry about many things, but not you. We need to help him get through this, Azzy. Everyone will be looking for someone to blame," said Armin.
She felt a flare of fire behind her eyes. "Blame never touches the one who truly deserves it."
Armin closed his eyes, squeezing her shoulders. "Do try to keep a civil tongue in your head. No matter what that oaf says."
A low knock interrupted their exchange. Brixby poked his graying head through the door. "Time, you two."
Her brother released her, moving to join their guardian. She hesitated.
"Be right there," she said with a reassuring smile. The moment they were out of sight, she retrieved her mother's journal from beneath her pillow and returned it to its locked desk drawer on her way out. It felt safer, keeping such words under lock and key.
Another bout of the Rot will break us, thought Azzy. Her eyes wandered the pitted hollows that stretched up the stone walls of the Heap, high overhead. People had lived there once, carving homes in the rock. Now they were abandoned, deeper pools of shadow within shadows, untouched by the feeble light of the grit-clouded street lamps.
It hadn’t always been called the Heap. Haven, the great stone city, was a refuge for the dwindling human populace. Once upon a time, Haven had contained over a hundred thousand human souls, one of six underground cities loosely clustered beneath a mountain range. Not all monsters existed Above. The grimwerms, the cave moles, and wailing natters made travel risky, but doable in large groups. The real enemy was one they could not see.
The first wave of Rot had decimated Haven. Entire quadrants of the city went dark. It wasn't the only city to suffer. Caletum, their nearest neighbor, shut their doors to all but the Foragers when the sickness first reached Haven, determined to keep it out. Salvation, to the south, was lost. They hadn’t heard a whisper from the others, Sospes, Tutis, and Sanctum, in years. When the Rot finally released its choking grip, only five cities were left, and Haven's population had been halved.
The Rot resurfaced every few decades, whittling down the population, breaking its vitality and spirit until Haven had crumbled to the Heap: a broken city, dwindled down to crumbling stones, with an ever-present layer of grime and hollow-eyed citizens. A city succumbing to the shadows that spilled from its dead spaces. The occasional air current made the derelict spaces moan their loss, a city full of ghosts.
The dim lamplight gave way to blooms of open flame, flickering blossoms in bowls placed in even intervals on the long tables that filled the town square. Except for the guards on duty, the greater population of the Heap was already present, speaking in hushed voices and furtive glances at the head table. Nell, the grieving mother, sat with her head bowed beside Elder Prast, and the remainder of her family occupied one side of the table. Pale and wan, she should have been resting, but according to Brixby, she had insisted she attend. The other half held figures of importance—tradesmen and politicians—with three empty seats on the end for the Apothecary and his wards. They were among the stragglers. Eyes fell on Brixby as they passed, the voices stuttering to a halt.
Armin's hand found hers, clasping her fingers in a tight nervous hold. It grounded her, kept her from lashing out at those hostile stares. For his part, their guardian remained stoic, his shoulders held back as he led them to their place of ‘honor’. She tucked in her skirts beside him, squelching the urge to wrap her arms around Brixby. The next wave of the Rot, they would be the first to come begging for the Apothecary's aid.
Nell's eyes remained focused on her lap, ignoring them. When it was clear there would be no confrontation, conversation slowly revived as servers set out bundles of loam bread and mushroom cake. Azzy kept her hands clenched beneath the table and tried not to stare at the empty bowl before her. She wished the woman had made a scene. Anything to avoid the rest of the Feast. Azzy’s palms grew slick, sweat seeping through her blouse until the cloth clung to her skin. Guilt writhed in her gut. It was possible Brixby could have made the salve to revive the newborn. If it could have been saved. If the Elder hadn’t refused to look for the Foragers and the supplies the Heap needed. Such caustic truth would banish her from the Feast and leave Armin and Brixby to soak up the backlash. Better to fume to herself.
Her knuckles turned white as the cauldrons made their rounds. The servers wore hoods, to conceal their faces. No one wanted to know who handled the stew. No one wanted to see the dark knowledge in their eyes. They already knew what went into the Feast. A dull silver ladle tipped a portion into her bowl. The stew gave off the rich scent of cooked meat and herbs. Saliva filled her mouth even as she grew nauseous.
Don't think about it, force it down. She hated the Feasts, hated what was expected. There were few who held her reservations, most digging in with vigor. A Feast guaranteed a hearty meal, which was something too many people rarely saw. It was a ceremony born from necessity when meat was scarce. There were no burial grounds in the Heap. It was difficult to dig into the bedrock, and a shallow grave would attract grimwerms. Most bodies were burned, but some were used for the Feasts. Her mother had told her that, long ago, the practice was considered an abomination. Yet here they sat, expected to at least take a sip as a sign of respect to the grieving parties.
Elder Prast ate with audible slurping sounds. The hair rose on the back of Azzy’s neck. Nell brought a spoonful to her lips, tipping it down her throat, the mother who gave the flesh, cycling it back into herself. Did the monsters of the Above consume their own dead? The more reluctant participants took a small quick sip, their due diligence acknowledged by Nell's nod.
The churn of bile in her stomach grew worse, sending a tingle that ran through her fingertips. A whisper tugged at the back of her mind. Armin dipped his spoon, the swirl of liquid tunneling to her sole focus. The whispers gained ground, trembling through her limbs. Something oily and foul nipped at the underside of her tongue. No, no, no, don't drink, don't swallow it down. Brixby's arm rose in the corner of her vision, bringing the stew to his lips. Her arms darted out on either side, snatching up their hands, knocking the spoons from their hold. The clatter of metal on wood echoed through the silence.