Their destination was half a day 's march east of Gaustenfolt's manor. Through thick fog, even thicker than it was over the river and the waterfall, Spirogui led the way. He was as familiar with the terrain here, in the basin, as he was up on the rim. With his drawn steel he hacked a path through the forest's undergrowth, chopped down restrictive vines and sliced apart the thorn bushes blocking their way forward. The fog grew thicker and Rheinshard grew hotter.
During the hike (while Milva swatted the mosquitoes and gadflies out of face) Spirogui explained what he knew of Olga.
They called her the "Youth Drinker", though no one amongst the Onion People knew why. She appeared in the Realm Across the Scar eighteen years ago with her familiar, a beast named Craufanzer, and made a home for herself in the basin. In little less than a year Olga was able to establish herself as a dominant figure in the Realm Across the Scar. Even the valkyries, throat-deep in their insane rampage, feared the mirror witch. In his great wisdom King Pa'pirrofo knew not to make any enemy of her, so quickly established a non-engagement and non-aggression concordat. As long as they stayed out of each other's way, there would be no conflict between Olga and the Onion People. Needless to say, the rise in valkyrie aggression was changing everything. Different methods were in store and new loyalties needed to be forged.
Though he did not have explicit permission from his king to take this course of action, Spirogui was true to his oath, that he would take any and all necessary steps to doom the valkyries, liberate Yggdrasil, and give the sun's kiss back to his people.
By nightfall the fog around them was so thick and high Milva could barely see the top of Spirogui's head. Luckily the forest had petered out into a grassland now too, a broad spread of glade chopped into `roads' by the hillock ranges dotted around its expanse. Although surrounded on all sides by the near-tropical forests of the basin, the glade was large enough that one couldn't see them in the horizon. In a way it reminded Milva of the human world.
The three retreated from the fog clouds by climbing a hill. Milva took in their surrounds with Captain Quy's old spyglass. Off in the distance, to the west, from whence they came, she spied the basin wall, too far now to be seen by the naked eye. Yet in the opposing direction one could already see the bushy crown of Yggdrasil's rising up in the horizon.
"Sit down for a minute," Flannery said, tugging at her skirt. "You could do with a rest."
Milva snapped shut the spyglass and had a grassy seat as Spirogui handed out the last of the fruit the Onion People gave to them. It wasn't much but by now Milva had grown accustomed to light meals.
The afternoon was declining into a tawny sunset when they set out again. With Spirogui at the head of their party they trekked down the winding, hillock-rendered paths in a course bearing northeast. Eventually Spirogui pointed out where he was taking them, the largest hill of the glade, one that sloped a full fifty yards above the rest. They passed by a small human village on the hillside, Spirogui called it Eiszweigstadt, on their way to the hill. Even from afar Milva detected the sombre nature of it, the first human settlement she'd come across since entering the Realm Across the Scar, but at the time she dismissed it as a consequence of the grim fog clouds obscuring its shops and cottages.
Spirogui ignored Eiszweigstadt for the most part and led them to the foot of the hill. It was steep, and wide enough to swallow up almost half of the glade's breadth, so the three of them were forced to crawl up the mound on their palms and knees, lest they fall and tumble back. There was a tear in Milva's skirt by the time they neared the summit, but by then she was too distracted by the heavy scent of hoarfrost in the air.
She shivered. With every step it became colder, and yet, in spite of that, the Rheinshard almost burned a hole through her pocket. It was so hot it stung Milva's fingers when she touched it.
"We're close." She whispered.
Behind Spirogui, Milva and Flannery scaled all the way to the hill's oval peak where the air was so chill their breaths were visible clouds in the breeze. When Milva climbed up from her knees to her feet, she followed the point of Spirogui's fingertip to the disarming sight below them.
It was a icicle-tinged castle built upon the motte of a snow-covered islet floating in the centre of a foggy lake.
"That..." Spirogui exclaimed. "...the mirror witch's castle."
Over the curtain wall and its towers, the keep and its crenels; great sheets of ice sparkled in the encroaching moonlight. Long, crystalline slats of ice slithered from the palisade down the slopes of the motte until they crashed into the snowy banks of the islet and shattered into twinkles. The snaps and clinks of breaking ice offered up a haunting music to the quiet waters of the lake. And the bleak fog, the fog that dogged their journey they first set off downriver of The Octavia's crash site, seemed to encircle the lake in a hyacinthine mist. It rolled around the lakeshore in a swirling cloud and then, unexpectedly, Milva realized something.
"It's coming from her," She said, teeth chattering from the chill. "The fog we've been seeing, it's coming from her castle. This is the nexus of it."
Flannery branched a hand to her. "Pass me the spyglass."
Milva handed it over. Flannery examined the castle with the instrument, musing her impressions in still silence, until she snapped the spyglass and put it away. "You might be right," she said. "The fog turns blue and then converges around the lake in that peculiar eddy."
"So what we do?" Spirogui unsheathed his sword. "We attack now?"
Flannery sighed. "I don't see how. I had hoped to sneak in but there's no bridge between the castle and the lakeshore, and it's too far to swim. We would need a boat to cross it. Either way, the element of surprise is lost to us."
"Perhaps if we simply talked to her," Milva said. "Perhaps if we explained what our plans were-"
Spirogui sheathed his blade, the metallic slurp of the manoeuvre cutting Milva off. H put his tiny hands on his leafy hips. "Milva too kind. There no `reasoning' with mirror witch. Mirror witch dangerous, already kill man for Rheinshard. Mirror witch not give Rheinshard up without fight."
"Well, whatever we plan on doing, it won't be seeing fruition tonight," Flannery said. "After all the walking, the cold and the dark would only be more of a hindrance to us."
"Then what we do?"
"Lets go back to the village we passed by earlier," Milva suggested. "We might discern a better approach over some hot cider."
It was dark as the day before creation when Milva found herself strolling through the gravel tract streets of Eiszweigstadt, and she soon realized that the sombre tone of the village had little to do with the fog.
It was a dreary place. Few people took to the streets and those who did wore awful, sad frowns as their visages. Eiszweigstadt was largely deserted. Every little house was a thatched square of dull and hobbled sandstones with small slits for glass. Every other homestead's business were revealed by small paraffin lamps, though there was little to be said about it; Children plucked chestnuts from the hearth and men sat idly as their wives brought them their supper.
The town square fulfilled all of Eiszweigstadt's commercial needs. There was a butcher shop, an alehouse, a bakery, a haberdasher, a potter and a blacksmith. These shops were mostly shut now but they betrayed the simple lifestyle of the town. It was not a lavish place, far from it.
Fog, bluer and thicker than it had ever been, was everywhere.
An unsettled Milva passed by a few rusty buckets as Spirogui led she and Flannery toward the inn. Delving once more into his amazing font of knowledge, Spirogui explained how most human settlements and villages in the Realm Across the Scar were located in the basin, since the valkyrie attacks had very nearly erased those on the rim. For that reason alone Eiszweigstadt was uncommon. Still, Milva could not help but wonder; as the terrain was utterly unsuited for farming and there were too few towns nearby to trade with, how did these people survive?
Flannery banged the inn door's brass knocker. After some shuffling and a few curses, a short, crown-balding gentleman appeared. On closer inspection he appeared to be the innkeeper.
"Lodgings," Said the archer, blowing breath clouds. "Do you have any going spare?"
The innkeeper glanced about their party, nodding with deference to Milva and Spirogui, but holding a weary glare on Flannery. "You en't from around here?"
Milva wondered if they should tell him they came from across the Scar. Was it foolish to do that? How did people who lived in the Realm Across the Scar even feel about those humans who did not follow them during the Migration of Spirits? To look at this man, with his plume leggings and liquor-stained apron, there was little visible difference from any random Grauheimian pub master or shopkeeper. In fact, Milva found it rather odd that there wasn't more of a difference. How could hundreds of years worth of disconnect yield so little change?
"Well?" Probed the innkeeper, staring at Flannery. "Where're you from, lass? You en't from Eiszweigstadt."
She shrugged. "Does vagrancy run contrary to your profession?"
That stuck a thorn in his bluster. The innkeeper fell silent a moment, scratching his balding skull a tick, before capitulating and stepping aside for them. "Come on through there, come now, we're letting the heat out" he said, ushering them forth. Milva came in after Flannery and Spirogui, and sighed a deep breath of relief at the foyer's warmth. What a relief it was to be out of the cold!
The innkeeper returned to his mahogany desk counter. A grid of wooden hooks mounted the wall behind it and dangling from most of them were brass keys. The innkeeper snatched three of them off their respective hooks and yelled for someone named "Hilde".
"So," he leaned forward. "What have you in trade?"
Flannery was right, the people of the Realm did not except their money. Milva paused a moment and wondered what they could offer him. The only truly precious item they had was the Rheinshard, its heat sweltering in her pocket, but trading that was out of the question. Then Milva saw the cross-guard and pommel of Captain Quy's sabre glittering in the foyer's paraffin-given light. That looked like it was worth something. The Dark Elf unbuckled it from Flannery's belt and set down on the counter.
"Will this do?" She said.
She turned to Flannery, reassuringly. "You don't need items to remember him. He's here, where he'll always be."
Milva pressed her hand against her heart when she said "he's here". She still expected Flannery to protest, which was why she was so astonished when the flame-haired archer backed away from the argument with little more than an exhale.
The innkeeper took up the blade, muttering, "listen to your betters, child" then pulled the sabre from its scabbard. Flannery had been using it like a machete to chop through jungle terrain and forest flora thus far, but she re-sharpened the blade every day. The intricate gold linings and patterns of its basket handle hinted at the captain's old military background (a fact he never spoke of much). It was a good sword but nothing they needed.
"I'd wager such steel would fetch for more than a few farthings over the Scar," He said admiringly. "Very well. I'll have it. How many days will you need?"
A simple-seeming girl in a grey dress came down the stairs to receive them when Flannery explained they only needed the night. And that was just fine by the innkeeper, who slotted his newly acquired sword away behind the counter. The plain-looking girl approached him, saying, "Yes father?"
He handed over the three brass keys. "We have new guests now, Hilde. Take their bags up to their rooms, would you?"
Hilde's was a woolly expression that Milva recognized instantly as downcast. She was sad about something but doing her very best not to communicate it. The innkeeper seemed rather oblivious. Nevertheless Hilde came to Milva's side with a polite bow and a weak smile, offering to take her burlap pack.
"Thank you, but... you needn't carry my things for me," Milva said. "I can manage by myself."
Hilde shook her head. "But that en't right, letting an Elf carry her own luggage. We're a respectable people here at Eiszweigstadt. We know our place."
"Come now," Hilde unfurled the pack from Milva's shoulders. "Let me carry these things for you."
Though she was rather slight of frame she held up the bag in her hands. She also took Spirogui's smaller sack of supplies (which he did not in any way protest) but barely cast an eye Flannery's way. With a shake of her head Hilde gestured for her father's guests to follow her upstairs to their rooms. Along the varnished oak banister they trod until they came to the three lowermost doors of the second floor. Hilde unlocked each one and gave its patrons a key each.
Finally she hauled Milva's pack into her room. It was an unfussy and quant little abode with scarcely little furniture aside from a bed, a table and a chest of drawers. Frost gathered at the tiny corners of the window's latticework. Hilde quickly brought flame to an oil lamp (made from pure dragon horn ivory) on the table. It provided the room with some light.
"There now," Hilde said. "Do you need anything else? Some food or water? We haven't much this time of year, but we'll spare what we can."
Milva pulled a lilac tress from her brow. "No thank you, that will be fine. But, um... may I ask you a question?"
"What did you mean downstairs when you said... 'you know your place'?"
For a moment Hilde looked at Milva like she'd grown a second head. Her eyebrows furrowed as if asked what colour the sky was, then paused a moment, thought something over, and profusely shook her skull to clear its cobwebs. "Miss, surely you en't... unaware of your station?"
"You are elvish," she said. "You are blessed. Who would be rude enough to make you carry things when a human hand is there? We are not rude, miss. We know our betters."
The word 'betters' made Milva shiver.
For a long moment she gazed into Hilde's eyes and Milva's senses, sharpened by the innate power of the Arcane, were razed with inertia. They could have been twins. It was like Hilde was the mirror image of herself in the human world; fogged by the notion of human superiority; and here was this human in the Realm Across the Scar who believed herself inferior to elves, even the "dark" ones.
Yet what shocked Milva was that the idea seemed so silly to her now. It was only a few weeks ago that she yearned for another set of ears, for a different colour hair and skin -- what had changed? She asked herself that knowing that, in truth, everything had changed. Agatha's death, the Octavia's crash and Kreug's lost leg, Valpheena's impending demise... and then there was Tetra. She was homeless now, yet on the verge of ending the valkyrie crisis once and for all. Everything had changed.
Milva clutched a hand to her heart. "This world is so confusing..."
"Aye, miss." Then Hilde noticed something. "Miss! Your dress."
She pointed to the tear in it. Milva smiled bashfully. "Yes. I tore it while my friends and I were out in the glade."
"We can't have that now. Will you come with me?"
Milva felt to tell Hilde there was no need to dote on her like this, but suspected that that would simply cause offence. So as not to rock the airship Milva tailed Hilde out of her lent room and up a second flight of stairs to the inn's dusty attic. There was scarce little there aside from a neatly made bed, a table full of needlework, and an old wardrobe. Hilde lived in this room. Milva crouched at the knees to avoid hitting one of the overhead support beams arching the roof.
"Be seated, please." Hilde asked. Milva sat on the bed.
She pulled out a needle and thread. "Could you take off your skirt? Don't worry, we're both girls."
Indeed. Human customs in the Realm Across the Scar were both eerily familiar and unsurprisingly dissimilar in their own ways. Milva flushed a little and slipped her skirt down her legs, off her boots, then handed it to Hilde who immediately worked to seal up the tear with needle strokes.
Hilde remained silent and focused through her work, leaving Milva to stare at her and her room. It was as plain as the guest rooms with only rudimentary furniture of living. There was little to admire here. Milva might have gone away thinking that, if she didn't then sight a wisp of embroidered white hanging flaccid in a discrete corner.
Milva blinked. "Is that a wedding dress?"
Hilde's needle paused mid-thread. Her shoulders trembled. But she uttered not a word.
"Are you getting married, Hilde?"
Hilde looked away, and once more Milva was reminded of how utterly miserable she seemed to be. The Dark Elf heard Hilde whisper "no", in tones so soft she nearly missed it.
"We've been going at this for nearly an hour now," Flannery snapped her pocket watch shut. "Clearly we can't devise a better plan."
The three of them huddled about the table in Spirogui's room. The oil lamp's jacinth-tinted light illuminated every concerned glance and disapproving scoff as they haggled over how to handle the Olga situation. As they spoke it was soon clear they had differing opinions on both the approach of the castle and what they would do once inside it.
Flannery wanted to row the smallest boat they could find over to the islet and climb up the castle battlements, then find the Rheinshard, steal it, and if Olga got in the way, kill her. She wanted to work stealthily and engage the mirror witch only when necessary.
Spirogui, on the other hand, he simply wanted to kill her and take the Rheinshard afterward. He merited some deference in that, because realistically the Onion People would pay the price if they let Olga survive and she divined that her treaty with King Pa'pirrofo had been violated.
Milva's plan was the outlier. She wanted to talk to Olga. She believed in earnest that if Olga were made aware of their quest and its goal, she would do the right thing give them the Rheinshard. Both Flannery and Spirogui sneered at this.
"We wasting time," Spirogui said. The light brought the sparkle out of his dewdrop eyes. "We make move `gainst mirror witch tomorrow. Who's plan we choose?"
Flannery threaded her fingers into an arch. "...Well, we'll do this democratically then. Clearly we're all favour for our own plans so, if I have to choose between yours and Milva's, I choose yours."
"Why?" Milva asked.
"Because I don't believe that this is a woman who can be reasoned with, Milva. She killed Gaustenfolt for the Rheinshard, remember? If ending her protects the Forest Sprites and gets us the Rheinshard then I'm willing to face her outright."
She knew Flannery would never see it her way. Milva sighed and turned to the third amongst them. "What do you think, Spirogui?"
"If Spirogui must choose between Milva's plan and Flannery's plan, then Spirogui chooses Flannery's plan. If Spirogui not to kill mirror witch then Spirogui not want mirror witch to know Spirogui break treaty."
"So let us see what we have here. There are two votes for my plan, two for Spirogui's, one for Milva's. All right," Flannery addressed the Dark Elf. "You're the decider, Milva. My plan or Spirogui's. Make your choice."
She liked neither. Despite all her reservations though, they did need to make a decision; time was not on their side with the threat of aeronautical fleets looming over them. Sighing, Milva ran her fingertips into her forelock and said; "Fine. I choose Flannery's plan. Maybe that way we won't have to kill her."
Flannery nodded to her. "Good. So we're agreed? We hop a boat across, sneak inside, snatch the Rheinshard, and scarper, attacking Olga only if we need to?"
"Agreed." Spirogui said.
"Very well." Milva said.
"All right. Well it's getting late. We should all get some sleep, it's going to be a long day tomorrow."
Milva yawned. Her plain old bed was growing in allure by the second. So she blew out the lamp flame and left Spirogui to his own devices as she and Flannery left his room with a plan in place. When his door clicked shut behind them the two girls turned to each other. They heard grunts and throaty rumblings from the lounge below.
"Thank you for supporting me in there," Flannery said. "I know this plan does not sit well with you."
"If I don't have my choice, I choose yours. That's all it was."
Flannery bobbed her head in acceptance of that, tucked a tress of red behind her hair, looking away. She stood there... almost awkwardly.
"Is something wrong?" Milva asked.
"...It's nothing. I was just thinking of something, but it's nothing. We'd best be getting to bed. We'll need all our strength for tomorrow. Good night."
"Good night." Replied Milva, as Flannery strode into her room. The door locked shut.
Milva yawned again, fully ready to turn in too, until that cogs-awful racket from below jarred her. Along with all the nattering and grunts came the wafting odour of tobacco, liquor, and salted pork. There were too many people down there for it have been the current guests. Was the innkeeper having some kind of get-together?
Curiosity got the better of Milva. She pressed her palms into the balcony and leaned over to scope the scene from a better angle. Down the lamp-lit stairwell and through the open lounge door, Milva spotted a congregation of men of varying ages, heights and weights, all huddled together in a big crowd with flagons of ale and strips of pork. Smoke vapour drifted about their heads from the burning ash of their cigarettes and pipes. There were no women to be found amongst them, aside from Hilde, who sauntered from man to man offering refreshment of their bottomed glasses, then quickly made herself scarce. Whatever was going on, it certainly wasn't a party, as their collective expressions ran a short gamut of tense to melancholic. Something terrible was gathering these men here together. But what?
"Quiet now!" Milva heard the innkeeper yell. "Quiet! You'll raise the dead with that noise!"
The murmuring stopped.
"I know this time of year weighs heavily on us all. No one's blind to the horrors at work here. But can anyone deny the fate Eiszweigstadt would face if not for the Youth Drinker?"
Youth Drinker? Milva thought. Isn't that one of Olga's nicknames?
The innkeeper marched around in a circle before the gathering, gnashing with rage. "How many towns have been destroyed by the valkyrie scum? Eh? How many refugees were we sheltering before the fog? Hundreds? Who would sustain the burden, gentlemen, tell me that! Who would sustain the burden?"
The room was utterly silent now, if not for the odd clink of a glass.
"I know this grieves us," said the innkeeper. "I cannot imagine life without my Hilde. But I have had... time to come to terms with it. She knows what she must do. Many of our daughters know what they must do. Lets be strong, lets be fathers. Lets know that their sacrifice maintains our way of life."
A cold fear pooled in Milva's stomach. What on earth were they talking about? Was something happening to their daughters? And what did that have to do with Olga?
After tossing back a glass of his own malt with a quivering hand, the innkeeper continued. "Craufanzer will come tomorrow at noon to collect them. Kiss them goodbye, ready their gowns, then bring them to the town square. As long as Olga eats her fill, her fog will keep our village safe."
Milva's jaw dropped, so utterly stunned she was! These men were going to forfeit their daughters to Olga!
Tetra's breath was warm in her ear.
"Everything'll change again, you know that, don't you?"
Gales and gusts, wind beneath formless wings of the Arcane, held them aloft. Was it her power, finally mastered? Or was it the power Tetra drew gasping out of the pit of her spirit? A burning, carnal strength. She felt it glowing from her skin, as Tetra's arms enfolded her, made her whole.
The air was hot.
Yet, it lingered below, so very far below her feet, the icicle-ridden castle of the mirror witch. She felt Tetra's gaze pass over her shoulder. She saw it too. Tetra knew what was to come.
"You ain't never gonna be the same again, Milva," Whispered Tetra. "This is the fulcrum of your story. That's why you don't want to fight her, en't it? You can feel all the pieces falling into position..."
She sighed, tracing soft patterns into Tetra's arm. "But I'm so frightened. I've already lost so much and I see the gears of fate cranking forward, regardless of what I do. Something awaits me in that place... and it's more than the mirror witch..."
"No doubt," Tetra said. "But you must face it. Conquer it."
"...But Tetra... I'm still so scared..."
The tips of Tetra's fingers curled up under her chin. With a swift stroke she drew the elfling's face to hers. Tetra's confident smile held her to a swoon. "I know you're made of sterner stuff than that, Milva. There en't no way you could've come so far if you weren't. You need to believe in yourself... like I do..."
It thrummed in her very veins, the hot strength of the Arcane, as Tetra traversed the space between their lips and offered up her soul-bursting kiss...
Milva lunged up gasping from her bed. After catching her breath she wiped the sticky sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. A dream? And why such a dream now?
Since there was no clock in the room Milva glanced out the window to divine the time. The moon had dissolved in the hoary sky for the sun to rise in its place. It was early morning from the looks of things. Today was the day.
Milva coughed. Her throat felt dry. She reached into the pack at her bed side and fuddled around for her water flask, but found it empty. So she climbed out of bed and left her room. Milva padded over the floorboards on barefoot steps that took her downstairs and around the foyer and hall to a second, shorter staircase. It led to the scullery. Milva went through its second door, which brought her out onto the cold flagstones of the inn's rear alley, just shy of the drinking well.
The morning chill was so raw her teeth chattered, but this would not take long. She hobbled to the well on her terribly cold feet and put her hands to the crank. The bucket lowered deep into beyond the stone and hit water a few seconds later with a "splosh". When the bucket's weight felt right she pulled the crank backwards and drew the bucket back up with a fresh supply of water. Milva scooped her flask into it, drank a quart, then returned to the inn.
Milva was on her way out of the scullery when she heard the sobs. She knew it was Hilde. In her concern she turned into the foyer and looked for her, calling her name, until she found the girl huddled behind the counter. She'd wrapped her thin arms tight around her legs and buried her face in her knees. Her body trembled with every sob.
Milva recalled what she overheard last night. The men of Eiszweigstadt, all gathered together to discuss the fate of their daughters... the daughters they would send to Olga. And Hilde was one of them. Her own father was going to...
"I-I-I'm sorry," Hilde stammered. She wiped tears from her eyes. "Do y-you require something?"
Milva took Hilde's hand into her own and kneeled by her side. "I don't need anything, so stop thinking about me. What about you? Are you... I mean... do you... know what...?"
Though Milva could barely bring herself to say the words, Hilde knew exactly what she meant. She confirmed it with a slow nod. There was no doubt. This was why Hilde had seemed so sullen last night. Milva put an arm around the girl and drew her into an embrace. Hilde folded into her, smothering her gut-wrenching cries into Milva's shoulder. For perhaps as much as an hour the two of them sat there; Hilde clasped in Milva's tender arms and crying her heart out.
"Why are they doing this?" Milva asked. "Why are they sacrificing you?"
Between snivels, Hilde found the strength to reply. "F-for the fog. It... is thicker in the g-glade around us... protects us from the valkyries. Years ago, when the valkyries attacked, Olga came to us... told us... that if, once every three years we presented her with maidens... she would create a fog that would... protect Eiszweigstadt from the valkyries... but the girls would never be seen again," She paused to get her breath. "We used to... kidnap girls from other villages... but as the valkyries destroyed them... one by one... we had to use our own. Now... I am to be sent..."
A startled Milva brought Hilde back to her shoulder. Everything was clear now and her mind swam through leagues of thought every second to ponder it all. With tearful Hilde in her arms she simply scrolled through ways of making this better, of stopping this. She thought long and hard, and in the end her conclusion was really very simple. It had been staring her in the face even...
"Listen now," Milva said, drawing Hilde's eyes up. "The gown you must wear for this. Does it have a veil?"
"...Y-yes, but... why...?"
A cunning smile found its way to Milva's lips. "You will see. Come, we haven't much time."
The clocktower overlooking the town square struck "XII".
Twelve bells broke the morbid silence infesting the town like the twisted blankets of fog shielding it from the valkyries. A procession of maidens, garbed in wintry robes of a virginal white, marched through the cobble and gravel tracks of Eiszweigstadt's streets. Ten of the town's strongest men accompanied them, five at either flank of their trope. Great white trains of fabric followed them to the town square. There were no other townspeople at hand. Everyone had shut their doors and latched their frosty windows. No voice was raised for the maidens in commiseration or cheer.
She found herself in the middle of the bunch. Though they laboured to hide it, many of the other girls were in tears. Some still tried to retain themselves but beyond the veils she knew there wasn't a single girl among them who wasn't terrified of what was to come. When they reached the square all twenty of them came to a stop.
Then a shadow rose in the distance.
A collective tremor rippled throughout the cloud of maidens. She looked up in the early afternoon sky and saw it flap across the hillocks of the glade to the fog-enswathed village of Eiszweigstadt. It was a monstrous four-legged creature; lion-headed and massive; its tough flesh completely blanketed in an ebony fur as black as the very pit itself. Its beating bat-like wings carried it all the way to the clocktower's pinnacle, where it perched itself upon the slate tiles and projected an ear-splitting roar from beyond its bone-crunching jaws. All the girls trembled. The roar was so loud it shook the windows in their frames and sent ripples through every cup and pot. She observed the creature from amongst the girls. This was undoubtedly Craufanzer, Olga's bestial familiar.
One of the men at their side, quashing his own fear of the monster, addressed the maidens. "It is here. Time to go, girls."
The collective whimpers amongst her were undeniable. She marched with them under Craufanzer's glare to the edge of the town where it curved along the foot of the overhanging hillock. A scaffold of wooden planks and rope led the rest of the way around the mound to a sizeable longboat moored at the lakeside.
Neither man nor woman manned the oars. Instead they were held by people of ice, frost men bearing the arms, legs, body and head of a human; but with none of the distinctions of humanity. They had no mind to think with, no eyes to see with, no ears to hear with and no mouths to speak with... they simply were. Lifeless entities carved from ice itself and given the gift of movement.
She knew these beings to be the mystic work of the Arcane.
The "frost wights" alone frightened some of the girls, but the less frigid among them spared their real terror for Olga's castle. It rested ominously in the centre of the lake.
The men marched all of the maidens into the seats of the longboat. When some tried to resist, they were beaten and shoved into the boat. Anger welled in her heart at the sight, but she kept her focus, knowing that she might spoil things now if she acted too hastily. The men herded every last maiden onto the boat and untied its moorings. With some grunts and shoves the men pushed the boat out into the lake's cold fog-kissed waters.
Under the looming shadow of Craufanzer, the frost wights began the agonizingly slow process of rowing the maidens across the lake to their doom. "Yo heave ho..." They sang atonally, without the aid of vocal chords. "Yo heave ho..."
She glanced at the lakeside. The men had already left. A girl whimpered at her side, shuffling in her wet seat. "W-what's going to happen to us?"
"...We're going to die. That's what's going to happen to us." Another said, utterly dejected.
"No one is going to die," She retorted. As she unfurled her veil to give her ears some room to wiggle, Milva gave them all a hushed message; "No one will die today, do you hear me? Not while I'm here."