Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 10

As Miter finished his own trading, he saw Gove was still talking to Empul; they did not look like they had reached any sort of agreement. As he came closer, he could hear Gove quizzing the blacksmith.

“So after the equinox then? How long after?”

Empul looked extremely fed up. “I don’t know; three weeks, a month or two; I’m not guardsen and I am not the keeper of the north circuit’s route.” They shifted their crossed arms and leaned back against a thick post, staring at Gove from beneath heavy eyelids. As Miter caught their eye, they raised an eyebrow.

“Miter — you look like you need me for something.”

Gove whipped around, looking slightly rueful. Miter was relieved he wasn’t the only person finding her behaviour frustrating, but he didn’t want her to alienate the whole town, either.

“Gove, have you gotten that ax sorted out?”

Gove and Empul quickly glanced at one another, and then Gove turned half away from Miter with open embarrassment on her face.

“Apparently Empul is not a fan of smoked meat either.” She shrugged. “So I won’t be trading them for an ax.”

Miter scanned Empul’s unrolled leather wraps, where four nice hand axes lay lined up between smaller knives and longer fire tongs.

“You know, Empul; this summer’s cheeses are almost ready.”

“You don’t say. You salt them properly this time?”

Gove squinted at Miter. “What are you —”

“Half a wheel for an ax?”

Empul snorted. “Full wheel and you know it. You’re not on credit anymore, Miter; I’ve melted down all your iron already.”

Gove sputtered, but he handed her a basket and stepped between her and the blacksmith.

“Half a wheel and enough felt to line your shoes; next market.”

“Woolen felt?”

“Winter undercoat wool.”

And Empul shut their eyes and nodded solemnly. “Next market, then. I’ll have a better ax than these little ones, just for you.”

Gove glared at them both. “I can’t believe this.”

Miter led her away from Empul before she could resume her interrogation. Gove waited till they were clear of the main crowd, and then turned on him.

“I don’t need your charity.” Her eyes were embers; was she embarrassed?

“It won’t be charity if you trade me fence building for that ax.”

“You said my fences were terrible.”

“The ax might improve them.”

She didn’t laugh; Miter tilted his head in confusion.

“You either accept this ax from me or you rely on me to chop firewood all winter. I’m thinking of myself, I promise.”

This did not have the intended effect. Somehow, Gove looked more miserable. “I’m fine on my own, Miter.” She turned and stared into the fog; it was thick enough now the far riverbank was hidden. “I don’t need this kind of looking after.”

The wind stirred up tendrils of mist into strange shapes, and Miter tried to figure out where he’d gone wrong.

“You still seem worried, though?” Gove pointedly huffed in response. “I’m just trying to be a good neighbour.” He had an idea. “Maybe these will help.”

As he rustled around in his back, trying to find them, Gove succumbed to curiosity and turned back with a sigh. Her frown remained, but she waited as he unwrapped the wards and tilted them to show her. “Rusk makes these, to ward off the uncanny and the cruel.”

“The uncanny?” She caught his eye and glared. “You want me to worry about your monster with you?”

“They’re good for more than just —”

“I have real things to worry about! Guards!” And she pushed his hand away, harder perhaps than she meant to — because the wards tumbled from their stack, and three of the four slipped from his grip.

The three wards hit the deck boards and shattered; each little amber window rattled down between boards to the river below.

Miter snatched the remaining ward away from her, a cold feeling seeping into him from his feet. Suddenly the mist had a chill to it; and his scarred hand ached with a feeling of frostbite and crushing teeth.

Gove was wide—eyed at her own mistake and didn’t seem to notice.

“Shit, shit, Miter, I didn’t mean to do that —” She frantically picked up the larger shards of terracotta, and desperately tried to fit a few back together. “I don’t know how these work; I just — can I fix it?”

He stared at her. “They’re wards. You only use them till they break.”

She looked so horrified, hands full of broken clay, that he felt the chill recede a little. This was all a misunderstanding; an accident. She was new here.

“Maybe it was meant to be this way.” Miter smiled a little, trying to sound lighthearted. “Wards work by breaking.”

That seemed to lighten the mood a touch. “Does that mean you’re triple warded now?”

That wasn’t exactly how these wards worked, but he didn’t think she needed to know right now. “I’ve never felt safer.”

He packed the remaining ward back in his pack, and Gove waited politely.

By silent agreement, they turned to leave the market together. Gove was clearly still thinking about the wards.

“Are they a northern thing?”

“Yes. The first time I was given one was up on the glacier.”

Gove looked impressed. “What brought you up there?”

Miter hesitated. But no, not today.

“I traveled a fair bit. Before the muskoxen.”

Gove stepped ahead, picking a path through the crowd towards the bridges that led to shore. “That sounds wonderful; I’ve always wanted to see the glacier.”

“It’s a strange place.” He shuddered. “Leaves a mark on you.”

“I’ve always wanted to see the sun stay up all night.” Gove paused to let a cart roll by them, and then, as she turned back onto the thoroughfare, Miter heard a familiar noise. Iron plates, rattling together; wooden cartwheels and soft leather boots.

Ahead of him, Gove froze.

Out of the fog, first one, then two, then a whole troop of guardsen walked onto the bridge, heading straight into town.

Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 8

The sun was high in the sky as they reached the river’s floodplain, but down by the water, things were hazy with something that almost looked like fog. It gave the market town an ethereal quality as they approached.

Gove had passed through the town on her way to buy her peccaries; it was unlike anywhere else she had seen on her trip north. All the buildings were up on stilts; this was because the town was built over the water, or over the floodplain the river would fill in the wetter months. There were homes, small with steep roofs, connected by a maze of footbridges; and there were larger platforms tucked between them, some with roofs but no walls, others open to the sky. Boats bumped against rope and wooden ladders, tied to the stilts themselves.

The floodplain underneath the houses nearest the escarpment was heavily planted; as Gove and Miter climbed up onto the wooden bridges, townsfolk bustled beneath harvesting a wealth of vegetables. The cool mist on her face was rich with the scent of humus and late summer flowers.

The river was huge; Gove had sailed up it with traders in the early spring, and had watched it transform from its wide, meandering southern self into a deeper, faster, colder northern thing. At this late summer stage she could tell it was lower than when she’d arrived, but it still seemed frighteningly powerful as it rushed around the stilts, rumbling and hissing and sparkling in the fog.

Miter navigated the wooden bridge paths without concern; as they passed houses with open doors he called out casual greetings to the occupants. Inside the wooden homes, Gove saw people bent over all variety of crafts. She noticed tanners scraping hides; old women sieving and grinding flour, scarves over their faces in the dusty interior air; in one, a circle of children were weaving a huge rug together from dyed reeds.

Miter quickly apologized as he ducked in a doorway to talk to an older weaver, leaving Gove leaning against the wall of the house and watching other locals carrying baskets and pulling hand carts along the bridges, hopefully also planning to trade. No one paid her much attention.

Two people passed by, one using one hand to pull a three wheeled cart and the other to fan themself with a wide brimmed hat, while their companion scowled over the top of a huge basket held in his arms. He grunted as they passed Gove;

“First the heat, now the fog again!”

Behind them a group of women younger than Gove were carrying baskets in pairs, each with a grip on one handle, the baskets themselves full of other straw and reed—woven goods — baskets and hats and what looked like protective plaited plating. One called ahead to the scowling man:

“Are you still on about all these omens?” The other young women giggled with her. Her partner on the other side of her basket added: “We’ve had our feet in the river all summer and it’s the same as it’s always been!”

Gove could see the scowling man turn and grunt something, but she didn’t catch it; Miter had stepped back out of the house, walking staff drumming on the wooden platform. His pack was noticeably lighter.

“Trading already?” Gove tried to peek in his baskets as he stepped ahead of her onto a smaller, quieter bridge.

“Of course.”

“Get much for your trouble?”

They both stepped to one side to let a woman leading half—grown turkeys pass. Miter shot Gove a confused look.

“I will in a few weeks. He can’t turn wool into clothing quite that fast.”

“Oh; I see.”

As they wove around houses, Miter explained:

“This isn’t a town with hundreds of craftspeople. If you want something complex, you should be prepared to wait.”

“Are axes complex?” Gove wasn’t sure how often she wanted to show up to market; her instincts told her not to be too memorable.

“You’ll have to ask Empul; they always have a few knives at least.”

He led her around another tall, bustling house and suddenly they were on the edge of a huge wooden platform, open to the sky except in the very middle, bustling with people, livestock, noise. Gove froze.

Miter turned and gave her an exasperated stare. “What are you doing? This is what we came here for.”

“It’s just .. wide open.” She saw people turning and looking at her, and she had to steel herself not to turn and run back to her tiny home in the woods. Miter had stepped back and put a hand on her shoulder.

“People here are friendly, Gove. You’re not going to get robbed or harrassed.” He had that tone to his voice again, like she was being a silly child; it made her angry, and anger made her unfreeze.

“I’m not worried about people being mean.” She shook his hand off. “I’m just checking to make sure you weren’t lying about local guards.” But despite the haze of the fog moving in, she couldn’t see any tell—tale red sleeves or tall hats.

Miter huffed, clearly insulted.

“Why not ask someone else, then. Empul, maybe.” He gestured with his walking staff to the far corner. “They supply the north circuit; they’ll know their schedule as well as I do.”

Then he turned and wove into the crowd, leaving her at the edge of the square.

Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 7

The swamp drained slowly down into the river valley, via sparkling creeks and singing waterfalls; the footpath wound back and forth across these rivulets and streams, over bridges old and new, stone and wood, safe and, in some cases, concerningly well worn.

Gove was quiet as she and Miter progressed down out of the dense trees and clouds of mosquitoes, but when the forest opened up finally and she could look out over the valley down into town, she audibly gasped.

“It’s so beautiful up here.”

Miter paused and turned to look as well.

“This does make the climb feel worth it.”

Gove had noticed that his staff wasn’t just for safer swamp travel; here on the steeper path he was putting a fair bit of his weight on it.

“You ever ride one of your muskoxen down to market?”

“They’re terrible in town; it’s too noisy.”

“What use are they, then?”

He gestured to his tunic. “Wool; milk sometimes. They’re great for longer travel.”

Gove mulled this over as they picked their way gingerly across a creaking wooden bridge. Beneath it, the water rippled in the breeze and sparkled in the sunlight, and the only reminder of the swamp was the deep tannin brown colour in the depths of the stream.

As they lost sight of the river town again, weaving back into the hillside on their descent, Miter stopped for a quick breather in the shade.

“I really should do this climb more often than I do.”

He didn’t look particularly out of sorts, but Gove was sweating in the humid heat, and was happy to sit on a rock and roll her pants to her knees. She had a pack full of forage, and dried and smoked meat, and she offered him some jerky. He waved her away.

“Not my favourite.”

“Oh no?” She tilted her head. “Do you think folks in town will want some?”

“Probably; I just stick to fish.”

“I’d be sick of fish in a week.” She tried to chew politely.

Miter gave her a once-over with half a frown.

“Why peccaries? They’re not exactly easy to raise.”

“They’re just what we had around, down south. They’re cranky but I’m used to them, you know?”

“You said you weren’t a herder?”

“Oh no, I mean, they were feral; but they were around.”

He shook his head at her. “That would be the same as me choosing to keep a herd of stagmoose. Extremely foolhardy.”

“Like no one’s ever been trampled by an ox!”

“My muskoxen don’t usually then eat whatever they’ve knocked down.” Gove laughed. “I respect my vicious little pigs!”

She snorted at Miter’s face. “It’s a good thing I didn’t ask you, isn’t it.”

He shook his head and got back on his feet. Gove still wasn’t sure exactly how old he was — certainly young enough that the limp was likely an injury — but old enough to be a bit condescending.

“You remember what I told you about winter supplies?”

She rolled her eyes as they started back down the escarpment. “We had winter down south too; I’ve got it.”

Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 6

Summer was at its peak. The muskoxen were sleepy and languid for most of the day, tails slapping at flies as they jostled for room in the shade of the maples.

Miter had spent much of the past month jumping at every sound from the swamp, but even his fear was subdued by the heat. No further impossible, horrific creatures had crawled out from the underbrush. And though he checked daily for tracks, no strangers — human or otherwise — had passed by his home or harassed his herd. The most notable thing was signs of a wolfpack moving through; nothing unusual.

Up on the edge of the swamp, Miter had very few close neighbours, but he had made sure to check on Gove every few days. She had been deeply shaken after losing her ax, and hadn’t left sight of her home since. Summer was a hard time for someone new to the swamp, though — and after seeing her making all the same mistakes he had five years earlier, Miter brought her some of Rusk’s best fly repellant and taught her how to quickly weave wide—brimmed hats from the reeds in the creek behind her peccary pen.

Today, though, he wanted her to come with him down to the river for the market; it was that or he was going to have to start feeding her from his own stores.

Gove was not impressed with his suggestion.


She was standing ankle deep in the creek, peccaries lying around her half-submerged in the heat. Miter lowered himself onto a boulder and put his baskets down.

“You want to tell me why you’re hiding out here?”

Gove stared at him and huffed. “You were there, Miter.”

“In the swamp?” Miter hadn’t talked with her about this yet — he still wasn’t sure it was the right choice, but…

“When I —” Gove paused and then walked up to him and spoke in a much lower voice; “—when I killed that guard.”

Miter laughed before he could stop himself — and Gove pulled back, face pulling into a frustrated scowl.

“What, you think it’s funny?”

“No, Gove, it wasn’t —”

“Is that something you do a lot of up here?” She stepped back towards her herd. “Do they just brush it off?”

“Gove, that wasn’t a guard.”

“I’m not going to town.” She turned and picked up her crook. “I figure you can’t turn me in without getting caught up in it too, why bring anyone else into it.”

“That wasn’t a guard! No one’s turning anyone in.” Miter shook his head. “You can’t really think you killed a person.”

Gove turned and stared.

“You knew his name! You called him Mabek. Don’t fuck with me, Miter.” She was holding her crook like a fighting staff, and Miter was reminded of how accurate she’d been with her ax.

“Where did you learn to fight like that?”

“Don’t change the subject! You knew him.”

Around them the cicadas sang as Miter weighed his options.

“Alright, yes, I thought it was a guard at first; a guard I knew, named Mabek.” He passed a hand over his face. “But it wasn’t.” Gove squinted at him, confused. “It wasn’t a person at all, Gove. I saw it up close — and it was a…” What word would begin to explain? “..it was a monster.”

Gove stood for a moment with her eyebrows raised so high they disappeared under her hat.

“You’re the one who threw the ax;” Miter spread his hands. “You knew it wasn’t natural.”

The young woman looked like she was very carefully swallowing her words for a moment, staring at him with an unreadable gaze.

“Miter; no matter why I threw that ax, that wasn’t a … monster. There aren’t monsters.”

He sighed. “You don’t remember.”

Gove walked up to him.

“I don’t know if you’re trying to comfort yourself, or me, but I definitely killed a guard and I am prepared to hide here in the woods until I can move again.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m definitely not going down to market to make small talk with all your other local guards.”

“That’s what I’m saying.” Miter stood up in frustration. “There aren’t local guards. We don’t have town guards. There’s only the north circuit, and if they come here at all, they come through in winter.” Gove tilted her head at this. “Right now they should be up on the ice.”

She stepped back as she digested this, and absent—mindedly picked at the loosening brim of her hat.

“So,” she said slowly; “he must have left the circuit weeks earlier.”

“A month, probably.”

“So they wouldn’t know where he was.”

“I’m sure they don’t know what happened to him.”

Miter bit his tongue as she seemed to roll that information around in her mouth for a moment.

“So there’s no reason anyone else would know about what happened?”

“No one here would ever even imagine it.”

Gove turned and looked at her herd. “I guess, then, it might be safe to go…”

Miter exhaled through his nose. “I agree.” He picked up his walking staff and his baskets. “And you are definitely going to regret it if you don’t trade now; all the good squash will be gone.”

Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 5

Miter had nearly fallen into the stagnant water when Gove had pushed him aside, and he hadn’t seen the arc of her throw — it was like Mabek had disappeared when he turned around again.

She must have connected, though, from the way she was gasping into her hands.

He gently touched her shoulder, and she twitched violently.

“I’ll go get your ax.”

The water was deep and murky; here and there splintered trunks of dead trees loomed beneath it, and Miter was very careful as he crept along the huge rotten cedar. Mabek was unresponsive — had she thrown well enough to kill? Miter had trained for years and never been that good.

But as he crept up and knelt near the hole the rogue guard had carved into the rot as he fell, all of Miter’s thoughts of humble human combat fell away.

What lay in the hole, limbs akimbo, ax buried deep in the side of its neck, was not Mabek.

It was undeniably a black bear. Its eyes had rolled back in their sockets; blood dribbled from its neck down around its forelimbs. It was not at all a guard.

But Mabek wasn’t entirely absent. In its gaping, toothy jaws, the bear held most — but not all — of his head.

The mist pooled into the cavity of the tree as Miter knelt there, transfixed with horror.

And then he slipped, just enough to lose his balance, and flattened himself against the trunk instead of falling in the water — and the tree shuddered beneath him, cracking and snapping — and Miter looked up in time to see the bear, with its grisly prize still wedged in its mouth, and Gove’s ax still buried in its neck, slip through the broken wood into the murky waters below, and disappear.

He gently crept backwards from the hollow, where bubbles were slowly drifting up to the water’s surface, and pushed himself back to his feet.

Beside him, Gove had gone still; she didn’t seem to register his voice as he whispered;

“We’re cursed.”

Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 4

“So it was definitely a person?”

Miter nodded, pausing to scan the terrain. “Yes, maybe wearing leather boots; they’re not dressed for the swamp.”

Gove tapped her clogs together. “Rusk gave me these; I didn’t really get it till now.”

“She gave me my first pair, as well.”

Gove patiently kept behind him as Miter tested damp ground with his walking staff.

“You’re not from here either?”

He shook his head. “I’m from the coast.”

Gove paused in case he wanted to elaborate further, but he wasn’t forthcoming. “How, um, how long have you been here?”

“More than five years now—” Miter froze for a moment, and she held her breath— “I can hear them.”

Gove shifted her grip on her axe and tried to step as quietly as she could; the ground was wet and sucking at her feet.

Miter led them in a careful circle around their target, until they came up against deeper water. It was pooled up against the base of a cliff, where it had killed off scores of huge old trees; their half—submerged corpses were covered in slime and moss.

“Step where I step.”

Gove nearly fell off the tree trunk she was creeping along when she saw him.

“It IS a guard!”

He was hunched over weirdly, up to his knees in the water, and he had most of a peccary under his arm. But there was no mistaking the red tunic and blackened armor. He heard her, and when he spun around, Miter froze as well. Gove heard him gasp, and then in a tone of forced friendliness, he called;

“Mabek? What are you doing here?”

Then the guard — Mabek — dropped the peccary corpse and leaned forward unnaturally and made an awful, gutteral, nasal roar — and then pulled himself up onto a sprouting fallen willow trunk and lumbered towards them much too quickly.

Gove had played a similar moment out in her mind many times, and without thinking about it, she pushed Miter out of the way and threw her ax.

The strange guard had just leapt onto a huge fallen cedar when the ax hit him. It stuck in his neck as he fell backwards with a grunt — and his weight pushed him through the bark into the soggy rotten core.

Gove froze. She hadn’t meant — it wasn’t supposed to actually kill him — and she could just see the remains of his face where it emerged from within the rotten wood, a horrible rip running from nose to ear. She fell to her knees on the slime—covered boulder and buried her face in her hands and screamed.

Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 3

Miter had to take a few minutes to calm his own herd down after the peccaries had been driven away, back towards his new neighbour’s plot. She didn’t seem like an experienced herder; but then he hadn’t been either, at first.

He cleaned himself up at the little well by the road, and put on a fresh sleeveless tunic. There was an unseasonable fog drifting at about knee height, rippling in what little breeze was coming up from the river. Despite it, the heat was building, and the oxen would need water.

He had two buckets with a woven strap between them, and he was hauling them over his right shoulder, leaning a little heavier than he liked on his walking staff, when he realized his neighbour had come back. She sat on her heels beside the broken gate he’d set aside to repair.

“You don’t have to do that —” he grunted, as he sat the bucket down, “— I’ve got it.”

She turned and leapt up. “I can’t not! I can’t afford to replace what my hogs ate, so…” She wiped her hands on her shorts and extended her right hand to him — and as usual, he waved her off.

“Not much of a grip in this hand.” He flexed his right palm and partial thumb, showing her the scarring where all four fingers ended before the first joint.

She nodded.

“Well, I’m Gove.”


“Sorry we had to meet this way. I just got settled, I’m in the next house over.”

“Welcome to the swamp, Gove.” Miter settled himself onto his working bench, tucked his walking staff underneath it. “You’re not from around here?”

Gove sat back down on the ground and picked up the post she’d be shaping.

“No, just, you know, needed a new start.”

Miter thought she might be young enough to be his daughter.

“Anyone else come with you?”

“No, that’s, you know. That’s probably why the pigs got out, honestly — I wasn’t much of a herder before!” She shook her head. “Could have been worse, I guess. I’ve got all but one back now.”

“I had to learn fast with this herd too.”

Gove looked at the herd, eyes widening at the thought of wrangling animals that large.

“Good job not getting trampled to death.”

As they talked, and Gove shaped replacement posts for the gate, the sun was slowly obscured by clouds.

The mist was rolling in thicker as the sky turned grey, and finally Gove looked up and frowned.

“I thought you at least got hot summers up north.”

Miter hummed. “We do. This is strange weather to have just after solstice.”

“Maybe that’s what spooked my peccaries?”

“You think they were spooked?” Gove brushed the wood chips off her lap and wiped her ax off on her wrap belt. “Definitely. I was inside when I heard them go off — I swear they scream almost like people — and before I could get out there the fence was down.”

Miter frowned. “You know, my herd was off this morning too.” He gestured to the smallest muskox. “They had the little guy against the house and the rest of them grunting and stomping in a circle around him when I came out with the corn.”

“Was it misty over here?”

Miter waved his scarred hand through the thickening mist. “Not quite like this, but yeah. Rolling in from the north.”

Gove looked behind her, into the woods. “In from the swamp. I swear I see all sorts of shapes in there out of the corner of my eye.”

“That’s the way of it.” Miter laughed to himself. “I could swear this morning I saw a guard walking between the trees —”

“A guard!” Gove was on her feet immediately. “There’s guards here?”

Miter leaned back. “Not full time. I’m sure I was imagining it. Wrong season for the north circuit to be here.”

But Gove wasn’t listening. Her eyes were wide and she gripped her ax with intent.

“I’ve been robbed by the guard before. They just do whatever they want.” Her gaze was clearly focused on something in the past. “I’m not standing around while this happens again!”

She leaned her posts against the gate, half turned to leave, then turned back quickly. “I’ll finish this, I swear. I — I need to go get my pig back.”

Miter wasn’t sure what to think. As she marched into the woods, he called after her.

“You’re going straight into the swamp?”

“That’s where I’d hide if I stole something!” She paused as Miter pushed himself back up to his feet.

“Don’t go in there alone. Let me track this thief for you.” Gove’s head tilted, confused.

“If you want?”

Miter sighed; he couldn’t let her drown in a bog over one peccary. “Let’s start at the beginning.” Miter gestured back to the road with his staff. “Where they got out in the first place.”

Gove watched Miter move carefully ahead of her through the forest, just as confident a tracker on dry land as he was through mud. The mist wove through the trees between them, and the grey sky peeked through willow branches that rattled in a breeze.

Wolf Neighbours – Chapter 2

Gove jogged through the swamp, easily following the trail of destruction. A small herd — eleven! only eleven! — of peccaries could absolutely tear up the place when left to their own devices. The low-lying mist pooled in ruts they’d carved in the soft ground on their way through. The sun was peeking through the trees, sparkling off the water to her left, spotlighting eddies in the morning’s mist as the breeze worked its way through. It was only now getting hot enough for the bugs to wake up, which was a mercy.

Gove hit her herding stick against trees in frustration as she lost the trail; she wasn’t a tracker, and when the herd had left the soft ground for rocky turf she had no idea how to tell where they went. She was walking in a widening circle when she caught a noise on the breeze.

She ran through a stand of dead trees, cursing her hogs and whatever chaos they’d gotten into, and pushed her way through a thorny berry bush, only to stand up on the other side, shake herself off, and realize her peccaries weren’t alone.

The herd had broken into another fenced paddock — she could see exactly where they’d smashed open the gate — and were harrassing six or seven huge unhappy muskoxen. Clinging to the back of one of them was a man, as discombobulated as his animals and also cursing the pigs.

Gove stood there stunned at the chaos for a moment, and finally summed up her feelings: “Shit.”

The man’s head snapped up and he turned his exasperated stare on her. “Please tell me you’re here for these monsters.”