It’s been some time since I posted a short story. If you know me at all, you know ‘short’ and ‘story’ are hard for me to put together. But sometimes I try.
Due to some things happening in life right now, an adventure just wasn’t plausible, so I figured I’d pull this story out of the mental archives and finish it. It’ll span the next several weeks. Let’s dig in and see what happens =)
Heart of Ice and Fire
Frost covered the edges of the glass window until there was only an oval in which to look through. If Em touched the corner, she’d leave a small fingerprint in the otherwise unbroken edge of the opaque white.
Em tried it and now the tiny ridges of her index finger stared back at her. She ignored the print. If anyone asked, it wasn’t hers.
She stared instead at the people bustling around the street outside the inn, bundled like hunched, furry animals. They were crazy people, every one of them. As the glass attested, even the fire in the hearth wasn’t warm enough to contend with the bitter cold outside.
And these people wandered around in it. A man passed her window, his beard iced over from his breath. Crazy. Certifiably crazy.
Em spun in the booth. A woman stood by her table. Her shoulders hosted a wool sweater that about doubled her size.
“Maybe,” Em answered.
“All’s I want to know,” the woman leaned against the table and posted a hand on her outside hip, “is can you pay?”
“Good. What’ll ya have?”
The woman lowered her head and looked at Em from the tops of her eyes.
“Not hard cider,” Em said, “just cider.”
“Hmm.” The woman wandered away.
Em shook her head and went back to staring at the crazies outside. Out of everyone on this trip, this woman was the easiest to deal with. Hadn’t even slowed her down that Em didn’t have parents with her. Most Inns insisted to see an adult, like Em could produce one out of her pocket.
Guess she couldn’t blame them too much. Seeing a young girl traveling by herself wasn’t common. And the closer she’d gotten to the mountains, the more suspicious people got. People in general just didn’t travel alone near the mountains.
Em finally joined a small trading party to get to Warren. They didn’t ask why she wanted to go to the last town before Summit Pass, and she hadn’t offered the information. It was the only town within fifty miles of the Pass, and she wasn’t sure she could technically call it a town. Just a group of people hardy enough, and crazy enough, to live in snow troll territory.
A mug clanked down onto the wooden table. “That all for ya?”
“Where can I find Ranger Wilkes?” Em asked.
The woman snorted. “Ranger Wilkes?”
Em just stared at her in the best imitation of her mother she could muster.
The woman snorted again. “He be crazy, you know?”
Seems to go around. Em raised a brow.
“Try at Zander’s shop. He likes the smell of tobacco.”
Em waited just long enough for the woman to disappear into the back before pulling the mug of cider close and taking a deep sniff of the crisp drink. The warmth of the wooden mug tingled against her chilled fingers.
Mama, this place be crazy, she thought in an imitation of the Inn woman.
Zander’s was a smoke shop right on the edge of town. It hunched low, letting the snow slowly creep off its eves in long sheets. Em eyed the icicles edging those sheets and imagined teeth. She shuddered.
A bell tinkled with the door but, because of the dim interior, Em didn’t see the two men sitting in the back of the shop until she made it to the cash register.
“Don’t sell to youngin’s,” one man said past the pipe in his teeth.
“Not looking to buy,” Em answered. “Looking for Ranger Wilkes.”
The other man burst out with a laugh that rocked him forward in his chair. He slapped his knee and rocked backward again.
“I’ll be,” he said, “haven’t heard that name in eons.”
Considering his mass of wrinkles, he might not be lying.
“Ranger Wilkes?” Em asked him.
He sobered. “No Ranger here. Just Jimmy Wilkes.”
Em digested that. Ranger implied honor. Jimmy Wilkes was a complete unknown. She’d come all this way, though; so backing down just wasn’t an option. Her Mama would tan her hide for this venture anyway, may as well make it worth her while.
She approached on soft feet and held out her hand to show him what she held. A tiny, deep green jewel nestled in her palm.
Wilkes grunted, and then eyed her with different eyes. This close to him, she could see the one white eye and the one brown one. She got the gut queasy feeling he saw her with both.
“Martha’s daughter?” he asked.
“Maybe,” she said.
“What’s she calling me to do?”
Em hesitated. Her Mama didn’t know she’d come. She wasn’t asking Wilkes for anything, not knowingly. But she needed the old man’s help, even if her pride wouldn’t let her ask for it.
“Troll heart,” Em finally answered.
Wilkes froze, the other man let out a low whistle.
“That’s some debt,” he muttered, and then pushed up from his chair and left Em and Wilkes alone. He moved to the register and began unpacking a satchel the trading group brought him.
“She infected?” Wilkes asked.
Em tried to meet his eyes but couldn’t hold that strange gaze for long. She dropped her eyes to her feet. The gem, clutched now tightly in her palm, bit into her flesh.
“She’s not asking,” Wilkes said. Not a question. “You know what she did to earn that gem?”
Em shook her head. It was just below a blood gem. Martha couldn’t have saved Wilkes himself or the gem would’ve been ruby red. Whoever she did save, though, had to have been his family.
“Then you’ve no idea the irony in this.”
Em glanced up through her lashes.
“My daughter,” Wilkes said, tapping a silver necklace with an oval locket around his neck. “She smuggled my daughter through troll territory. Got scratched in the process.”
Em shuddered, and then understanding washed coldly from her head down her spine. Wilkes nodded as he saw the horror overtake her face.
“Yeah,” he said, “I couldn’t turn you down if I wanted to. Martha’s infected because of what she did for me. Surprised she’s lasted all these years without the madness affecting her.”
Em didn’t respond. She hadn’t lasted all these years. Mama raved and tried to climb the curtains on her good days. The only thing that seemed to make her sane was when she taught Em her lessons. A stark, frightening clarity overtook her for those brief hours like she lit a fast burning candle to illuminate the whole areas of her brain.
Wilkes nodded again. “Can’t do this alone,” he said. “You up for hunting troll?”
This was the first hint she’d seen of the crazy the Inn woman spoke of. Her, a thirteen-year-old girl, hunting a troll?
She lifted her chin. “Whatever needs to be done.”
To Be Continued Next Thursday…
Thank you for stopping by. We’ll see you next week =)