By: E. K. Johnston

To Rachel, who dealt the worst game of

Settlers of Catan in the history of humankind.

We know exactly how we came to these cold, hard mountains, and we remember everything that we have lost since we arrived here.

We were a proud kindred, once, taking what we wanted from the petty humans, and nesting on our ever-growing power. We were made strong in that desert heat, tempered by sand and blood and bones. We stretched out our hands and our will, and used that which we seized however we wished. We made bodies that could not be killed, and we began our slow domination of the world we inhabited. Then one of us rose too high, took too much, and was brought down.

The world is made safe by a woman.

She took the evil that she knew and bound it up with bright iron she had dreamed into existence. She found a place for evil to roost, far away from the people she loved. She made for evil a home where it would be weakened and starved, where the earth itself would be a poison to it. She did the very best she could.

And, for a while, that was enough. The mountains were not kind to us, as she knew when she sent us here to suffer. For generations of human life, we were too weak to leave them. We would not die, but we could no longer send out our spirits with the fiery vengeance we had carried before our defeat. We were beaten. Lowered. Angered. We hungered and we thirsted, and we lamented what we had lost in the hot desert sand. And we remembered every modicum of it.

The creatures she made to be our keepers hemmed us in, keeping us weak and struggling. Their iron horns and fiery breath caught us on the slopes without mercy, and their flames brought out new strength in the earth’s power over us. Their songs and laughter were torture to our ears. Even their little feet and little stingers made our unending lives a misery, turning the ground again and again to magic beyond our control.

But we endured.

Humans came to the mountains, to cross them at safe passes, seeking a pathway to the sea. The land on the other side was better, fertile enough for growing food and soft enough for cattle. First, villages sprouted up to mock us, prospering where we could not go; then, towns and trade routes; and finally, a kingdom in its own right. We knew that if we were to rise again, we would have to do it before they gained full mastery of the land they had claimed.

Our first attempts to leave the mountains were met with disaster. Time, perhaps, or hubris had dulled our sense of ourselves, and we were hopelessly overmatched. We were not yet strong enough to face a horde of human fighters, much less the creatures who jailed us. There was iron everywhere now, it seemed, plucked from our very prison and smelted into bright weapons, and even jewelry, that we could not abide. Our wounding was beyond the mortal measure of pain. We retreated. We regrouped. And, oh, we abhorred it.

From my hated sanctuary, I looked down upon that kingdom, and I knew that another way must be found. We could not take, as we once did. We could not force and pillage as we liked. I would not wheedle, and I would not beg; but I would ask, barter, and trick. I would find weakness, and I would push it until it cracked. They would give me what I wanted and think that they had bested me. I had only to outlive them, after all, as my kind did not die. And so I learned.

There are corners in the world that are too dark to see, and there are edges that are sharper than they appear, ready to snag the unwary. There are those who do not fear the things they should, and there are those who would bargain with the devil herself for the sake of their greed.

The world is made safe by a woman, yes, but it is a very big world.

THE LITTLE ROSE was only five years old when her parents ruined my mother and brought ruination to my own life. I can tell the story like I was there, though I wasn’t. Even if I had been, I had only six years to my life then, and my memory would likely fail me on the finer details. So it is better that I heard the story from others, others I trusted. That means I know the truth.

My mother told it to me, and the others who fled with her repeated it, and I learned it at their knees. By then, I was old enough to card the wool and spin the thread—I was my mother’s son, so my spinning was to be expected. When you spin, there isn’t much to do besides talk and listen, but at the time I needed to learn more before I could do my share of the talking. As a result, I was a very good listener. The words I heard were woven into my heart, and I wrapped myself up in the details I gleaned from them as I would a blanket: once my mother had been a proud woman, and a wealthy one, and then a spoiled little princess had ended it all.

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