Arden arrived at the forest cottage later in the evening, with the elk slung over Tulip's back.
He had had scarcely stepped through the front door before Priscilla was upon him. The young dark-haired girl was lithe and fast, and leapt at him like a tightly wound spring released from its latch. Her struggle to snatch away his bow was soon joined by their two younger siblings--Mercia and Ingrid. They tackled him to the floor, with Priscilla pinning while Mercia and Ingrid pried back his fingers. When the twins finally took the bow, they jumped to their feet and ran back into the house, crooning as they held it high over their heads.
Priscilla sat up on Arden's chest and folded her arms triumphantly. "It's mine, now," she said.
Arden peered up at her critically. "It only counts if you take it away by yourself," he told her.
"I did. I convinced my sisters to tackle you all by myself," she said.
Arden tried his best not to grin. "Clever minx." He then rolled to his feet, which sent Priscilla tumbling. "Where's mother?"
Priscilla landed on her back and made a face, sticking her tongue out at her older brother. "Reading," she said.
"I need to speak with her. See to it that the terrible twins are gentle with father's bow, yes?"
"They are quite terrible," Priscilla agreed. "So terrible that I think you will have to tell them a story to get your bow back."
"Oh, will I?" Arden asked.
"Yes," Priscilla replied, a sly look slipping into her eyes. "And I will listen, of course, to make sure that you are not cheating them with a shoddy one."
"Very responsible of you," Arden said.
"Of course," Priscilla said, before she rolled back up to her feet. "It is my duty, as the eldest sister."
"Yes, I think I found an excellent tale while I was out," Arden said. "Hurry off to bed quickly, so I can tell you it before it spoils."
"Stories can spoil?" Priscilla asked, horrified.
"Yes," Arden said. "Like eggs. The smell is terrible. Now shoo!"
Priscilla darted off. Arden's smile held for a few more moments as he watched her leave. He made his way to the cottage's humble study.
Sybil Broderick had been a beautiful woman, once, but only in the way thunderstorms were lovely--fierce and violent, with all the unpredictable grace of a lightning's strike. Now, she was old and ornery, with a strap of leather over one missing eye and a gnarled crutch she leaned on to help with her limp. Her dark hair was bound up behind her head, laced with streaks of white.
She sat at her dead husband's desk, reading a leather-bound book by candle-light.
Arden hadn't even opened his mouth before she spoke.
"You killed an elk?"
"Did the musk give it away?" Arden asked.
"The stench still sticks to your clothes," she said, and then she looked up. Her face broke into a grin. "You sold it for good money?"
"In a manner of speaking," Arden said. He rubbed the back of his head. "The good news is that we get to sell our elk and eat it, too."
Sybil's smile fell. "The bad news," she said.
Arden could not meet her eyes. He never could when he was telling her something that troubled him. "There was a wagon, during the hunt. It went through boggin lands."
Sybil's eyes narrowed. "Tell me everything," she said.
And so he did.