Crow Mary: A Novel

Crow Mary: A Novel

by Kathleen Grissom
Crow Mary: A Novel

Crow Mary: A Novel

by Kathleen Grissom


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The New York Times bestselling author of the book club classics The Kitchen House and Glory Over Everything returns with a sweeping and “richly detailed story of a woman caught between two cultures” (Sandra Dallas, New York Times bestselling author) inspired by the real life of Crow Mary—an Indigenous woman in 19th-century North America.

In 1872, sixteen-year-old Goes First, a Crow Native woman, marries Abe Farwell, a white fur trader. He gives her the name Mary, and they set off on the long trip to his trading post in Saskatchewan, Canada. Along the way, she finds a fast friend in a Métis named Jeannie; makes a lifelong enemy in a wolfer named Stiller; and despite learning a dark secret of Farwell’s past, falls in love with her husband.

The winter trading season passes peacefully. Then, on the eve of their return to Montana, a group of drunken whiskey traders slaughters forty Nakota—despite Farwell’s efforts to stop them. Mary, hiding from the hail of bullets, sees the murderers, including Stiller, take five Nakota women back to their fort. She begs Farwell to save them, and when he refuses, Mary takes two guns, creeps into the fort, and saves the women from certain death. Thus, she sets off a whirlwind of colliding cultures that brings out the worst and best in the cast of unforgettable characters and pushes the love between Farwell and Crow Mary to the breaking point.

From “a tremendously gifted storyteller” (Jim Fergus, author of The Vengeance of Mothers), Crow Mary is a “tender, compelling, and profoundly educational and satisfying read” (Sadeqa Johnson, author of The Yellow Wife) that sweeps across decades, showcasing the beauty of the natural world, while at the same time probing the intimacies of a marriage and one woman’s heart.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476748481
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 03/12/2024
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 28,075
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Kathleen Grissom is now happily rooted in south-side Virginia. She is the New York Times bestselling author of The Kitchen House, Glory Over Everything, and Crow Mary. Find out more at

Read an Excerpt

IT WAS DARK and hot at the back of the big barn as I rolled aside a heavy wagon wheel that leaned against the entry to the storage room. A slam behind me made me jump, heart hammering even more, but it was only a stall door caught by the wind.

Careful of the bottle of whiskey that sat at my feet, I worked a key in the rusty lock. Finally, it clicked and the log door moaned open. This room had been built with one high, small window so none of the ranch hands, drunk or daring, would be tempted to break in, and I squinted into the dim light.

A fine dust covered everything, though the air smelled clean enough. A wood floor had been put in to keep the pelts dry, and the chinking along the logs had kept out the wet ice of our brutal Montana winters and the worst of our hot sun. Leftover goods from our fur-trading post were scattered on the pine shelves. A comb, a few bars of soap, and even an old can of sardines lay next to a mouse-nibbled red blanket and the remainder of one last buffalo hide. But there—there in the corner on the second-highest shelf, two tiny blue bottles shone in the pale yellow light.

Mice scurried when I pushed aside empty liquor barrels to get to the shelf, and as I reached up, my hand trembled. The tiny bottle was no heavier than a pinecone, but the enormity of what it held almost put me on the floor. With great care, I set it next to the liquor, unplugging first the whiskey bottle; then, before I could hesitate, I picked up the strychnine and held it to the light. How much did I need to kill a man? Just a small amount of this would take down any number of animals.

I shrugged and tipped the entire contents of the blue bottle into the whiskey. “Dead is dead,” I told myself. “You can’t overkill him.”

As I was locking up again, I heard the horses circling the corral, answering a whinny that had come up from the direction of my tipi. Was he early? Was he already waiting? My legs went weak, and I leaned against the wall. I was no match for him. I was as good as dead. But then I remembered what he had done to Song Woman, and what would happen to Ella, and rage straightened me.

I gave the whiskey bottle a last shake. “Awe alaxáashih! Hold firm,” I said to myself, and then I went out to greet him.

Chapter One IT WAS THE beginning of April, the moon of the first thunder, when the man rode up. The air was crisp outside our tipi, but Mother had seated us in the warm afternoon sun.

“Now watch, Goes First,” she instructed, threading three tiny blue beads. “I was about seven snows, just like you, when I first learned to bead moccasins for my doll....” We both glanced up at the approach of a horse, and as Mother took in the state of the rider, she handed me the pan of beads and got to her feet.

“Red Fox?” Mother asked, unsure if she recognized the visitor.

Father stepped from our lodge, carrying the musket he had been cleaning.

“Horse Guard,” the man greeted my father.

“Red Fox! Where did you come from? How did you find us?” Father looked pleased to see our visitor until the gaunt man suddenly tried to catch the gray blanket that fell from his shoulders. He moaned when it slipped to the ground, and his hand went to the deep gash across his chest.

Father grabbed hold of the reins. “You’re wounded! What happened?”

“A raid,” the man said. “Sioux—our old enemy. There were only four of them, but we were just three lodges and they caught us unprepared. We were heading down here, camped just below the Elk River where we were waiting out the snow. I was coming.... I wanted my sister to meet my new daughter. But they wiped us out. Killed...” He leaned forward in an effort to breathe, and I was afraid he was going to tumble off his horse. “My sister, your mother,” the man murmured. “Where is she? Is she well?”

Father’s face went tight as he glanced back at me. “Red Fox,” he said, “there was a battle not far from here, a year ago. Mother was... it was a bullet. She went to the Other Side Camp.”

On hearing the news, the man slumped forward. Father caught him and tossed the reins to one of the young boys who had come to investigate our visitor. “Take the horse to the water and then pasture it with mine,” he instructed. “Lean on me, Red Fox,” Father said, and half carried the injured man into our lodge, where he set him close to the fire.

“When did the Sioux attack?” he asked.

“Two days ago, if I’m remembering right,” Red Fox said.

“Where were you?”

“In that ravine where your father used to trap.”

Father nodded.

“They got our horses. Lucky for me, mine circled back.”

Exhausted from talk, the man listed to the side, and Father helped him lie back. “We’ll set up a lodge for you next to ours. You’ll stay here with us.” He glanced up at Mother, who nodded back.

“Go ahead. I’ll take care of him,” she said.

When Father leapt away, I had no doubt of his purpose. If he, chief of our fifty lodges, led a war party, I knew that the Sioux men did not have long to live.

Mother hurried to the back wall of our lodge, where a tripod held her medicine bag.

“Here, hold this,” she said, handing me a wooden bowl of water. Red Fox grimaced as Mother cleansed the deep knife wound, but when she dusted black root powder over the reddening gash, the old man sighed in relief.

“Rest now,” Mother said, and then nodded for me to follow. Outside, Mother stamped off a circle, and then I tramped down the dried grass while she uncovered and brushed the snow off Grandmother’s dismantled tipi. News of Red Fox’s arrival had quickly moved through the village, and before the two of us had all the lodgepoles in place we were joined by two of Mother’s friends. Together the women lifted the tipi covering. Fifteen buffalo hides stitched together were heavy, but this was familiar work for women who could put up or dismantle a lodge at a moment’s notice.

I helped by bringing in kindling and getting a fire started, and soon Mother and I had Red Fox settled in his tipi.

“He needs a good marrow broth,” Mother said, and with that the two of us went out to split some buffalo bones. These we covered in water, and as they simmered over our campfire, we began to hear our braves gathering. The men set up a sweat lodge close to the river, and as they prepared for war, they smoked and prayed and painted themselves while sending up animal calls as they sought help from their animal spirits. Their cries reminded me of the battle fought the day Grandmother went to the Other Side Camp, and as my fear increased, I stayed close to Mother.

When the marrow broth was ready, we filled a horn cup with it and brought it to Red Fox. Twice he refused to take it from Mother, and frustrated, she handed me the cup while she tended the fire. When the old man glanced at me, I didn’t ask, but pushed the drink toward him. Surprisingly, he took the cup and drained it, then handed it back before he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.

Mother and I returned to our own lodge just as Father appeared, painted in dazzling yellow zigzag stripes and as charged up as a war horse.

“What do you think? How bad is his wound?” Father asked.

“It’s bad, but I think it will heal. He doesn’t speak, though.”

Father shook his head. “He was always shy with women, just like me.”

Mother thumped his shoulder with her hand, and he laughed as he caught her arm and pulled her into a tight embrace. There was one steady argument between the two of them, and that was Father’s flirtation with other women. Dalliance among the Crow men was not uncommon, and at forty snows, not only was Father chief of our village, he was also taller than most, and handsome. Mother was a good wife and took great pride in caring for his clothing. His deerskin shirts and breech cloths were always clean, and she made sure there were no beads missing from his leggings and moccasins. I liked to watch the two of them in the early mornings as Mother used her porcupine brush to care for his long black hair, braiding it, still damp from his early morning swim in the cold waters of the creek.

Now Father kissed her, his hands on her cheeks.

“How long will you be gone?” Mother asked.

He shrugged. “Depends on the amount of snow and the weather. They’ll have a few days on us, but I’m only taking six of our best men so we can move fast.”

“Come back to me,” Mother said, and they kissed again. As he turned to leave, he nodded toward me. “Don’t baby her,” he said, and I was hurt once more when I was reminded that he had wanted me to be a son.

With a great war whoop, Horse Guard leapt onto his gray horse. He called out again, waving his rifle with four eagle feathers attached, a reminder to everyone of the coups he had won in past battles. His shrill warrior’s cry sent shivers down my back, but to the other warriors it was like a hot flame set to dry tinder. Their answering cries reminded me again of the battle I tried so hard to forget, and when Mother left me to go and see to Red Fox, I climbed under my buffalo robe. There, trembling, I squeezed my head tight, trying to keep the memories away.

ONE YEAR BEFORE, I had gone with Grandmother to spend the winter at the camp of her younger son, Bears Head. I happily waved goodbye to my parents, reassured that I would see them again when the snow melted.

We Crow were one large tribe, made up of many villages that came together in the summer months, not just to visit and have fun, but because there was safety in numbers from our enemies. In winter we dispersed again into small villages to ensure that everyone could find good shelter, a sufficient wood supply, and plenty of elk and buffalo for food.

Over those cold months I enjoyed meeting Grandmother’s old friend, Sees Much, and her grandson, Big Cloud, but our good time was brought to an abrupt end in early spring when our scouts brought word that the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho had joined forces and were amassing with the intention of wiping out the Crow people. Being forced from their own land by the Yellow Eyes, they now wanted to claim ours. Our caravan traveled north as quickly as possible, picking up other Crow villages along the way until we were almost four hundred lodges strong. Days later, though exhausted from travel, we hurriedly set up camp alongside our familiar Arrow Creek. There we were offered a natural barrier of steep banks to give us an advantage.

As the braves set up their defensive positions along the creek bank and in the surrounding ravines and bluffs overlooking the creek, the women quickly erected their lodges in tight circles and then skirted the creek with lodgepoles. These they covered with buffalo hides to create further fortification.

A huge cloud of dust rose from the corral that had been built to hold the horses not used for battle. There, hobbled and pushed onto their side so they wouldn’t be hit by bullets or arrows, they struggled and screamed.

Along one side of the creek, braves prepared for battle, purifying themselves in sweat lodges before they opened their medicine bundles. From these, some took preserved pieces of their spirit animal and tied them to their hair, then painted their faces in vivid colors and called on their animal helpers to share their strength and courage. As the warriors took on the characteristics of their animal helpers, the air, already thick with the smell of sacred sweet grass and cedar smoke, now filled with the howling of wolves, the grunting and growling of bears, and the screeching of birds.

I lay between Grandmother and Sees Much as we peeked out from a trench alongside the fortified lodgepole barrier to see the enemy atop the hills. It was strangely thrilling to see the feathered war bonnets of hundreds and hundreds of our enemy as they rode back and forth along the bluffs. With frenzied war cries, they waved their weapons, taunting our warriors who waited below. Even I could see that we were desperately outnumbered. Some of our braves were mounted, but many were on foot, concealed in the trees and the tall grasses. Others, positioned in the hills, waited there for the attack.

“They say we’re outnumbered twenty-five to one,” Grandmother whispered.

“Is your knife sharp?” her old friend Sees Much asked, glancing at me. “You know what you might have to do.”

I could smell Grandmother’s fear when she stroked my head. “They won’t take us.”

AND THEN THEY came! The ground shook from the pounding of the horses’ hooves, and I felt Grandmother’s heart thump against her chest as she held me tight, trying to shield me from the war cries and the screams of pain. Too frightened to cry, I held to her, my teeth chattering uncontrollably.

Awe alaxáashih! Awe alaxáashih! Hold firm! Hold firm!” came the Crow command as guns blasted amid the cries of hand-to-hand combat. The enemy charged again and again, and when we heard the men call for the women to bring ammunition, Sees Much and Grandmother both pushed to their feet. I clung to Grandmother, but she pried me loose and pushed me back into the trench. “Stay down! Stay here and wait for me!” she shouted.

I tried to call her back, choking on dust, but when she disappeared, I crawled out of the trench to follow.

I was frantic, calling out her name as I made my way past young boys who fought to hold terrified horses. Women raced to treat wounded braves—and I stopped to watch in disbelief as one of them, his shoulder shattered by a bullet, was bandaged and then tied back onto his horse. With a warrior’s howl he reentered the battle, waving a hatchet that was tied to his one good arm.

Káale!” I screamed when I finally saw Grandmother in the distance and I ran through the blue smoke of muskets and whistling arrows when she gave an answering cry.

“Get down, get down!” she called, waving her arms as though to push me to the ground. She was coming for me when a gun blasted, shattering her chest and turning it red. She crumbled, and I stopped running. I wanted to go to her, but my legs wouldn’t move. An arrow whizzed by, and in front of me a rider fell from his horse. The panicked animal reared over me, and I stared up at the threatening hooves until an unknown hand pulled me back. I sat there, too stunned to move.

“Look! Look!” Thick smoke suddenly rose from the northern hills, where a Crow scout had set a fire. Our people’s cry went up, leading the enemy to believe this was a smoke signal from approaching Crow reinforcements.

When a massive cloud of dust rose opposite the billowing smoke, our old men and women saw another opportunity to bluff.

Drumming began, and cries went out to the enemy that a second large war party of Crow was on the way. Incredibly then, another huge cloud of dust formed over the far hills and began moving in the direction of the battle.

Fear of what appeared to be approaching reinforcements rippled through the enemy, and when they turned back, our braves gave chase while our women shouted cries of victory. I was alone when Bears Head came with Grandmother’s body.

WHEN MOTHER RETURNED from treating Red Fox, she found me damp and trembling, and took me with her to her pallet. There we lay as she soothed me with the lullaby Grandmother had given me, and slowly I came back to the present. As she grew tired, Mother’s voice dropped off, but I wanted her to stay awake.

“Who is Red Fox?” I asked. “If he is Grandmother’s brother, why don’t I know him?”

“You met him when you were just a baby,” she said, rousing herself. “He is a lot younger than your grandmother—only a few years older than your father. He lived on the other side of the Elk River and traveled around up there with our relatives, the River Crow.”

“What should I call him?”

“You call him Grandfather,” she instructed.

In the morning Mother insisted I come with her to dress Red Fox’s wound and then to offer him more of the healing broth. He didn’t speak but again, he would accept the broth only from me. We left soon after when we understood that he wanted to be alone.

The following day Mother sent me with some hot fry bread along with the broth. I stood close to the door while he drank the liquid, but he didn’t touch the bread. His body was so thin that I could see all his ribs, and I wanted to tell him to eat the bread but the way he stared off in the distance frightened me.

Finally, on the third evening after his arrival, when again he did not eat the bread, I approached him. By now I recognized his grief for his wife and daughter, and I remembered how after Grandmother’s death, I, too, had to be encouraged to eat.

“Here,” I said, dipping a piece of bread into the marrow soup, kneeling in front of him, and feeding him as Mother had fed me. After I pushed the soaked bread into his mouth, he swallowed, and after finishing the bread he took the bowl and drank the contents before angrily shoving it back into my hands. But I was not frightened, because I understood that he didn’t want to live.

The following day, when he turned away from a steaming bowl of elk stew, I pushed it toward him. “Grandfather, eat this,” I said. “It is good for you.”

He considered my words before he took up the food, and then nodded for me to sit. Before I took my woman’s place alongside the lodge door, I threw more wood onto his fire. Then I sat as Grandmother had taught, with my legs and feet under me, carefully covered by my deerskin dress. He gave me a fleeting look when he handed back the empty bowl. “You have the same face as my sister,” he said. My eyes filled, and afraid of my tears, I ran.

Mother insisted that I return the following day. “He doesn’t take the food from me,” she said, “but he’ll eat for you.”

“I suppose you will tell me to eat all of this?” he asked, receiving the bowl of plum pudding.

I nodded, though I kept my eyes down. It made me smile to think that I, a child of seven snows, was giving a grandfather orders.

AFTER FIVE MORE days, Father and the braves returned with four Sioux scalps. Red Fox attended the celebration that night, and the next day after finishing the meal I gave him, he stared into the fire. “I had a daughter,” he said.

I was seated, but I was prepared to run, scooting closer to the lodge door. I couldn’t bear to hear him speak of any violence.

“My wife and I were old when our daughter came. She was no bigger than a chickadee when she went to the Other Side Camp. She was only two snows.”

I held my breath. I didn’t want him to tell me more.

He cupped his head in his hands and rubbed his face. Then he sighed, and there was a long silence before he looked up at me. “You remind me of my sister,” he said, his voice soft.

“How am I like her? How am I like Káale?” I asked, hoping to turn his attention away from his daughter.

His mouth curved up in a half smile. “She was bossy.”

In spite of myself I smiled.

“She was more like a mother to me because she was so much older,” he said. “She had her two boys, but she always wanted a daughter. You must have been very special to her.”

I nodded but looked down, trying not to cry. I wanted to tell him about her and how I had caused her death, but instead I choked back the words and left at a run.

ONE OF MY last memories of Grandmother alive was when we arrived at the winter camp and she was reunited with her childhood friend Sees Much, who came to help us put up our lodge.

“Where is your husband, Goes First?” Sees Much asked me as she patted my head. “Is he out hunting?”

“I don’t have a husband yet,” I said, astounded that she should think I did.

“And why not?” she asked.

“Because I don’t like boys,” I said.

“And why don’t you like boys?”

“Because they think they can ride horses better than me. But they can’t. Right, Káale?”

I looked at Grandmother to see the two friends exchanging a smile. Then they got to work, and though they both carried weight they moved with the agility of younger women. I moved between them to do what I could, and soon the three of us had the lodgepoles in place. I groaned as I helped them lift the heavy cover, and again I saw them exchange a smile.

“So, do you have any news for me?” Sees Much asked Grandmother. “Have you found a new man yet?”

I gave a swift glance to Grandmother, who was pounding in stakes to hold the cover in place. After Grandfather died two snows ago, she had moved next to my parents’ lodge and helped Mother care for Father and me.

“I told you that I was finished with that business. I don’t want an old one, and the young ones don’t want me.” The two laughed.

“Well, you had a good one,” Sees Much said.

Grandmother agreed. “Fine looking, too.”

“And you are still beautiful! Between the two of you, you had some nice-looking babies. Horse Guard and Bears Head are handsome men.” She puckered her lips and pointed them toward me. “Looks like she has some of that Métis blood, too.”

“Métis blood?” I asked. “I don’t want it. What is that?”

“Too late,” Sees Much teased.

Káale,” I complained.

“Ach, Goes First. Métis are just people who are part Indian with some French or English mixed in,” Grandmother said. “Like your father.”

“Are you Métis, too?” I asked her.

“No. I am Crow. Your grandfather was a Yellow Eyes. Don’t you remember how he spoke to you in English?”

I nodded. “He always made me talk like him.” But I had never thought of my grandfather as anything other than Crow. He smoked with the men, and he loved to talk about the raids that he had been a part of. He was a tall, gruff old man, but he always had a smile for me, and whenever I was unhappy, he was the one I ran to.

“Ah, my little one. Tell your grandpop what’s troubling you.”

No matter what my complaint, his answer was always the same. “Now isn’t that just the worst?”

“Dance with me,” I’d plead, and I’d pull him to his feet while he moaned about his aching joints. Once standing, he’d reach for my hands. “Come on then, lassie. Let’s dance your troubles away.”

I loved to hop about with Grandpop, and soon I’d join him in song. “Ohhh, a-hunting we will go, a-hunting we will go. We’ll catch a little fox and put him in a box and never let him go. Oh, a-hunting...” By the time we worked our way through the song, my unhappiness was always forgotten.

As the two old women bantered, I remembered how soft Grandpop’s white beard had been and how Grandmother was always trying to get him to cut it off.

“He was a trapper who got trapped,” Sees Much joked.

Grandmother poked at Sees Much. “He was happy enough,” she said.

“And why not? You gave him two strong boys and a good life here with the Crow.”

I DIDN’T WANT to be reminded of Grandmother again so I refused to take Red Fox his meal the following day, but when Mother returned from his lodge, she had a message. “He would like to take a walk, but he is not strong, and he asked if you would come with him.”

I shook my head.

Mother sighed. “Goes First. He said he will walk only with you. He said you are bossy and you will know when it is time to return home.”

Reluctantly I slipped on my fur-lined moccasins and mittens while Mother fixed my warm red blanket around my head and shoulders. It was a gray day with a chilly wind.

He was standing outside his lodge, dressed in Father’s clothing. The leggings were too long for him and bunched around his moccasins, and the buffalo robe looked too big, but he was ready for the cold. He didn’t smile when he saw me, but his look was kind and his hand shook when it reached for mine.

There was still snow on the ground when we began those walks. At first neither of us had a lot to say, but in the coming months we both began to take notice of Mother Earth’s changing face. When summer came, I pointed to a cluster of tall purple flowers growing along the rocky slopes of a hillside. “If I had my digging stick, I’d dig up that root,” I boasted. “Kaale always kept some of that, and she’d make me chew a sliver of it when I had a cough.” I shivered. “It tasted bad, but it helped.”

Red Fox nodded. “Black root is good for many things. When I was a young man, I was a good runner—”

You were a good runner?” I asked.

He looked down at me with a slight smile. “Yes, I was a good runner, and when enemies were spotted, I was often sent to alert other Crow villages. I had to run fast, sometimes for days, so I carried nothing, but if I needed water and there was no stream to be found, all I had to do was to chew one petal of this flower and my thirst was satisfied.”

“Only one petal?” I asked.

“Yes, one petal, and then I could run like a deer.”

I didn’t voice further doubt about his fleet-footedness, but said instead, “I wish I was a boy.”

“A boy?” he asked. “Why is that?”

“Because I want to be brave, like a warrior.”

He stopped and looked me. “You don’t have to be a warrior to be brave. Women are as brave as any warriors.”

“How can you say that?”

“Why do you think the men stay away from the birthing lodge? They can’t bear the idea of a woman giving birth, never mind give birth themselves. If they had to do it, they would be crying like a bunch of Little Toes.”

“Little Toes are just babies,” I said, and he returned my wide smile.

I took his hand again, and we continued on our walk through the sunshine and the open meadow.

“Tell me, Goes First, what makes you think that you aren’t brave?”

I shrugged, but remembered Grandmother’s death. Suddenly I was choking back tears.

“Are you crying?”

“No,” I said, turning away from him.

“Then what is that water running down your face?”

I shook my head.

“Let’s rest,” he said, and sat me down opposite him in the sun-warmed grass. With his thumb he reached over and dried each side of my face. “Now tell me, why you are crying?”

“Be... because I... made Káale... die.” I sobbed out the terrible words. “She told me to stay in the trench, but I didn’t. I followed her, and when she saw me, she came running and...”

“And she was shot by our enemy,” he said.

“Yes.” I leaned over in anguish, and the tears I had been storing poured out.

He waited until my sobs died down. “And then what? What happened then?”

“I didn’t go to help her,” I whispered. “I ran away.”

“You couldn’t have helped her. She had already gone to the Other Side Camp.”

“But I didn’t go to see. I ran away.”

“We do things like that when we are young and afraid,” he said.

“But I want to be brave,” I said. “I want to learn to ride and shoot a gun like the boys do. Then if the enemy comes, I wouldn’t be afraid and I could help to fight.”

He thought awhile. “Éeh itchik. Good. I can teach you about horses and guns, and after I finish with you, you’ll be able to outride and outshoot any of the boys. But there is something just as important that I want you to know.”

“What?” I asked.

“No one is without fear. There will be times in your life when you will be very afraid, maybe as afraid as you were with your grandmother. But the brave take action in spite of that fear.”

“Will I ever be that brave?”

“You already are,” he said. “It is the brave who tell the truth.”

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