Half-way through the tale, Sybil had grown quiet and morose. It was only when he finished that she spoke.
"You are sure that he said Delilah, in Winifred?" she asked.
"Yes," Arden replied. "Why? Do you know either?"
"I know Winifred. It's a week from here, along the road to the north," she said. "Let me see the brand."
He showed it to her. She gripped his wrist in one of her hands and traced its outline with a long, chipped nail. She glared at the image of the crow, as if she could strip it from his skin through sheer cussiness alone. Then, with vast reluctance, she released his arm and leaned back in her chair.
"Well?" he asked.
"Well," she said. "You'll have to go see Marigold."
Arden stiffened in place. "You want me to travel through bogginfolk lands? To see the witch of the woods?"
"No," Sybil said. Her expression wavered between indignation and regret, before it finally settled on exhaustion. "No," she repeated, "but this is a matter of magic, Arden. We cannot trust it."
"Why not just do as the old man said? Perhaps this Delilah can rid me of the tattoo--"
"Perhaps," Sybil said. "Perhaps not. But you need Marigold's council. If you cut through her woods, you can shave a day off your trip to Winifred as well. It's on the way."
"But the boggins--"
"You're clever enough to avoid them," Sybil told him. "We taught you well."
Arden turned away, his eyes traveling to the volumes of books that lined the shelves. "I've never even been outside of the woods."
"I know," Sybil said, and her hand gripped his shoulder. "But you know how to hunt, you know how to ride, and you know how to shoot your bow straight. There's nothing else you need to know."
"What happens if I don't go?" Arden asked, and he looked at the tattoo once more. "Maybe it's harmless."
"Magic is never harmless, Arden. You know this. Perhaps Marigold can remove it from you herself, and you will not even need to leave the woods. Seek her advice. She will know what to do."
"How soon should I leave?"
"Tomorrow morning," Sybil said. "I would send you tonight, but you stink of elk; the boggin would find you. The longer that mark is on your skin, the more trouble it might bring. I'll make preparations tonight. For now, sleep."
Arden turned to leave. Before he did, Sybil spoke again. Her voice, so often strong and decisive, had the slightest quiver.
"Arden," she said.
"Yes?" he looked back to her.
"Take care," she said, and she touched the back of his hand. "Don't let your life become nothing more than another cautionary tale."
Arden smiled. "I'm far too clever for that."
"I hope so. Tend to your sisters before you sleep."
As Arden stepped out of the study, he noticed the door to his sisters' room was slightly ajar; as he stepped forward, the door closed with a click. He rapped gently, then when he heard no reply, he opened it.
The twins were already tucked in beneath their sheets, their father's bow gripped in both their hands over the bedding. Priscilla was at her dresser, removing several of her tunics and gowns.
"Priscilla?" Arden asked, his voice soft. "What are you doing?"
"Coming with you," she said, her back to him.
"You were eavesdropping," he said.
"You're not leaving without me."
He reached forward to touch her shoulder, but she pulled away. When she turned to him, her face was split with anger and her eyes were wet. "If I don't go with you, you won't come back."
Arden dropped down to sit on a nearby stool. "Priscilla--"
"Just like father, and big brother," she said, and she turned back to pull more clothes out of the dresser.
Arden smiled thinly. "Big brother? You weren't even a toddler when Alexander left. You couldn't remember--"
"It still hurts," she said.
Arden's smile faded. "I'm sorry. But I am coming back. It's just a short trip, Priscilla. Two weeks at most."
"That's what father said. You won't come back," she insisted.
"Priscilla," he said, his voice lower. "Would you like to hear the story I found for you?"
"No," she snapped, furiously jamming a tunic into her leather knapsack.
"Are you sure? It's quite a good one," he told her.
"I don't want to hear any of your dumb stories," she said. "I'm coming with you."
"But then who will tend the pigs, or hunt the elk?" Arden asked.
Priscilla stopped; her shoulders shook. "I don't know," she said. "But--"
"If you listen to this story," Arden said, "then I will promise you that I will come back."
Priscilla looked over her shoulder at him. "You can't promise that," she said.
"I can, and I will," he said. "Have I ever gone back on a promise?"
She thought about this a moment. Then, she sniffled, wiped at her nose with her wrist, and turned back to Arden. "You have to promise," she said.
"Cross my heart," Arden said, and he crossed his heart with his finger four times, just to show he meant it. "Would you like to hear the story, now?"
"Okay," she said, but her tone was muted. She crawled back into bed, then peered up at Arden from above the covers. "But it better be really good," she said.
He dragged the stool besides the bed and smiled. "Oh, it is," he told her, and then he began: "Long ago, shortly after God first sang the song that made the earth, and the stars, and the heavens..."