The dawn's hands had only just begun to spread across the sky, giving light to the darkness. The morning light poked through the forest, dawn's thin fingers coming to rest upon the creatures sleeping below to give new life to the world. For their part, most of the animals responded by resuming their place in the world. Some instead retreated further into their dens, their life's work needing the darkness of night rather than the daylight that the dawn offered. Only one thing felt the beginning of the day and made no movement at all.

It took a far firmer touch to rouse this sleeping man. A sharp pain passed through him; not a piercing pain but a great stinging brought him into wakefulness with a snap. He cried out, his shout giving alarm even to those creatures that had only just returned from their work. He hurried away, stumbling clumsily over the ground, his eyes adjusting to the flash of pain as well as the light of morning. Until his sight returned, he could only make out the sound of laughter.

The young man first reacted with fear. His heart pounded in his chest as he tried to recall where he was. It was not until his eyes regained their focus that he saw the source of his fright. It was an older man, with long brown hair and a graying beard. Even in his later years, he had a more powerful build than Tori's youth had managed. Beyond this, he was armed, with a bow in his hand bent and strung and a short sword hanging from his side. Tori's fear wavered as he recognized this, replaced by mild annoyance.

"That was very unnecessary, Blonias," Tori complained, rubbing the welt that now stung his thigh. This brought only fresh laughter from the man before him. "What are you doing here, anyway?"

"Hunting," was the response give. "Though I imagine your cries scared off the good game."

"Yes, of course. Let's have a good laugh at the commoner," Tori managed to say. The shock of his awakening had subsided, allowing his mind to register the soreness his body voiced. He was not accustomed to sleeping on the forest floor and the uneven ground left him with pain. "Where is your daughter?"

"Sleeping still. Seems the celebration last eve took some of the vigor from her. Fortunate that we arrived early so she has the chance for such lazy mornings."

"Waiting until the sun rises to start your day is hardly laziness, but I will go rouse her if it concerns you so."

In actuality, there was no need for Tori to wake Larlia. She had risen on her own, seeking the comfort of her morning routine to shake the grogginess that her previous night had left her with. Tori found her still in her sleeping gown and lighting the stove. He did not knock, giving her a good start before she recognized him. Her fear quickly gave rise to a flush in her cheeks. He only smiled, grinning helplessly at her form, but Larlia's embarrassment was quickly replaced with anger.

"Tori!" She shrieked. "What are you doing here? Get out!" She rushed back to her room, leaving the fire lit in her flight. She continued to berate him even through the closed door. "Fates guide me. What is wrong with you? You have the manners of a brute. What are you even doing here?"

"Your father woke me and sent me here to see that you were awake," Tori replied. "And you've no reason to be embarrassed. I, for one, am quite pleased with the morning so far."

"You would enjoy that, seeing me undressed," she complained.

"I would," Tori admitted, still smiling. "I could undress if it will make it will make you feel better,"

"You would feel better about that than I would," Larlia called back. She finally reappeared, this time clothed properly. Her attire was practical and comfortable, doing more to provide for movement than accent her figure. Her garments consisted of blue and white, the colors her father often wore when he was not stalking through the forests.

"I would," Tori agreed, his smile still strong.

"You said that my father sent you," Larlia said, her face remaining red. She did not return to the small kitchen to continue her cooking. Instead, she flopped down onto the nearest chair. "What was he doing at your home?"

"He wasn't at my home, actually," Tori explained. "Seems I found a very comfortable spot in the woods and I decided to do a bit of camping before winter set in."

"You collapsed in the forest?" Larlia asked, her forehead knitting and creasing with her concern. "That is dangerous. The Beasts could easily have found you and taken you as a meal."

"Now wait," Tori protested. "I distinctly remember not passing out. I merely decided that the forest was a wonderful place for a nap. I remember lying down and sleeping, not falling over in a drunken stupor, as you seem to think."

"Then you are a fool instead of a drunk," she insisted. "It was still dangerous. What if something had happened to you?"

"When did someone last see the Beasts?" Tori argued. "They are a legend meant to frighten children into staying home at night. Even my father admits he has never seen one, and I would wager that your father would have the same answer if we asked."

"We are still too close to the border for you to sleep alone and unarmed in the open. You do not even carry a blade."

"The Northerners have not been a threat in ten generations," Toni paused for a moment. "Besides, it seems your cooking is a greater danger."

Larlia did not question what he meant. A quick glance back to the kitchen brought her the answer. From the food that remained over the still lit stove came a billowing, black smoke. Her panic came immediately in the form of a sharp shriek and her swift flight to the source. The pan was doused with water, as was the fire. The food, a simple breakfast of an egg and a strip of pork, was black and drenched. No longer fit for the belly of man, it was thrown out for the birds and dogs. All this was accompanied by Tori's amused laughter.

"You think it is funny?" Larlia objected, her face worn and uncomfortable at the morning's start. "You come here unannounced and uninvited. You walk in on me undressed. And you make me burn the only food we had left over from our journey here. I must now do the shopping on an empty stomach and you only laugh."

Tori did stop laughing, but he could not help his smile. He helped her clean the mess she had made, taking care to keep from her path as much as possible in so small a space. The home had not been designed with more than one person in mind. Blonias had been forced to build onto the existing house to give his daughter her own room but no additions had been made to the rest of the building. Space was a scarce luxury when two set about to clean the kitchen together.

"Finish preparing for the day," Tori suggested when the final traces of the failed meal were gone. "We will go to my father's house and I will make you a proper Northern breakfast."

"You can cook?" Larlia asked, dubious of such a claim.

"I am a fine cook," Tori assured her.

Tori was not a fine cook. The meal he prepared was not a great change from what Larlia had attempted excepting for the inclusion of bread and cheese. The eggs had not finished cooking while the pork had burned on one side. The most satisfying portion was bread and this only survived because Tori had no hand in its preparation. Still, it had its desired effect; Larlia laughed with her friend and forgot the embarrassment the morning had brought.

After her spirits had been lifted, Tori escorted Larlia through the town, helping her to buy the supplies she and her father would need immediately following their long journey. They went to the baker, who sold her bread that would keep for several days. They met the butcher, who provided them with the cuts they could dry and cheese to keep. The winter would be hard, but it remained some time off. They had time to build their stores.

Larlia was in far better spirits when the two returned to her home, her amusement at her friend outweighing her awkwardness with the start of her day enough that she agreed to cook for him again. She no longer was constrained by the limited foods left over from her travels and, as a result, she was able to prepare a truly satisfying meal.

The evening meal came and went before the moon appeared, hiding nearly all of its girth behind the darkness of night and allowing the ancient stars a chance to watch the tales of man unfold. The light of day retreated, leaving the creatures of the night to finally return to their work. Not far off, upon the region's only mountain, the people of Tori's village believed the Great Beasts roused from their slumber, eager for the hunt and driving most people to their homes.

Tori and Larlia braved the danger, though she would insist upon taking her bow with her. Of course, she carried her weapons with her throughout the day, something strange to Tori but common in the capital where Altonian culture was the strongest. They wandered along worn paths, taking advantage of the still warm night before winter arrived. They walked in silence, hand in hand, under the shadow of the night.

"I missed you," Larlia said eventually.

"I am sure that the city has excitement enough to distract you from that," Tori replied. Despite his cynical words, he gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

"There is little in Altonia as amusing as you, Tori," Larlia smiled. "Especially when you are trying to cook."

"I am a fine cook," Tori reiterated. "It is not my fault you do not appreciate good food."

"You should come to Altonia. To the city," she suggested. "We have enough room for you and you should see how different we live. Our games and our festivals are unlike anything you have here."

"You have no sense of fun," Tori protested. "When we first met it took me weeks to make you smile. Your father is worse. I do not think you or anyone else ever laughs in the city. It would be better for you to stay here where the people are happier and allow themselves the simple pleasures of life."

"Like drinking?" Larlia teased.

"Like drinking," Tori agreed.

"Our men drink only at special occasions. The birth of a son or a wedding," she explained. "A safe return home from war will bring out the joy of the city. It is difficult to explain. You cannot know safety until you spend the night in Altonia, with her knights everywhere and the Captain's army protecting her walls. I would not want to spend my life anywhere but within the city."

"And I would not want to spend my life anywhere so serious."

Tori's hand slipped from Larlia's and she made no move to retrieve it. They spoke of more mundane things, the happenings of their homes and their families. The two friends continued to walk, their hearts suddenly heavy with the burden of their inevitable separation.