Drew Farrinson had never seen a snowstorm like this.
He could not see for it, could barely breathe for it. He could not hear for the wind. Big fat flakes smothered and saturated him anew with every passing second, cold as ice. His whole body was shaking as he walked down the road, scarcely able to see the dirt track. He led his horse by the reins, unwilling to ride the poor beast in such weather. He figured the gelding was suffering enough; it had been dun once, but the storm had coated it in white powder. It tried to shake it off now and again, but by the time it shook any amount off, that same amount had fallen again.
It was a hopeless battle; Drew knew how the horse felt. He had given up trying to shake off the snow and now simply plodded on, eyes slitted against the stinging flakes and howling gale. When he made out a dark blur up ahead of him, he decided that he would be stopping for the day no matter what sort of building it was. Fortunately, it was a waystation; a resting spot for weary travellers, one and all.
Drew scowled at the simple wooden shack; he had been hoping for someplace slightly more durable. The waystation looked as old as his great-grandfather, like a good gust could bring it down at any second. Nevertheless, he needed shelter like he needed to relieve himself, so he led the horse to the stables. They were well-kept; there were empty stalls, freshly lain with straw, and troughs of water. Drew rubbed the horse down with frigid fingers on the brush and then fed the beast some oats. He was tempted to curl up in the straw beside the horse and go to sleep, but he did not want to be trampled. So, he exited the stables, braved the blizzard and made his way to the waystation door.
The wind yanked it out of his grasp as soon as he unhooked the latch, and slammed the door open. He had to put his back into it to close it again, and by the time he had done so, a smattering of snow had spilled onto the welcome mat and wooden floor of the shack. Leaning on the door once he had closed it, Drew surveyed the waystation.
Two people looked back at him, a man and a woman, both sitting on poorly carved wooden chairs by a fire in the stone hearth. Drew breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the flickering flames. Besides the chairs and the fire, there was little else inside save for an old, scarred table, a door Drew was confident would lead to a pantry, and piles of pots and pans and tools cluttering up two corners of the room. Dusty hoes sat beside rusty shovels; Drew wondered if whoever lived here fancied themselves a gardener.
“Well, it looks like you were wrong,” the man said to the woman. “Someone else was daft enough to be travelling today.” He turned to Drew. “Welcome, friend. Come in out of the storm; make yourself at home, please. My name is Radda Ulvarson; I’m the waystation officiant. I make sure everyone’s as welcome as everyone else here.”
The man beamed at Drew; he was perhaps twice Drew’s age, but still spry for his size. He had a fatherly manner, ruddy cheeks, a receding hairline and a pudgy face. Drew wondered how he could have gotten so pudgy out here in the middle of nowhere; some people were just pudgy, he supposed. Radda’s gut strained his belt and pressed up against his red wool tunic.
“What’s your name, traveller?”
Radda turned to the woman, and Drew saw a huge tuft of grey hair sticking out of his ear. “Not much of a talker, I suspect,” he said jokingly. “You two ought to get along famously.” He turned back to Drew. “Where you headed on a night like this, eh, lad?”
Drew stared at him and stopped slumping against the door, stood tall. “Is it a requirement now at a waystation that travellers must divulge their destinations?”
The man blinked, taken aback, his smile withering. “Well, no, I was just being polite.”
“Being polite?” asked Drew. “By prying into my business? If that is so, I’ll thank you to be impolite in future.”
Radda frowned. “Alright, lad, no need to be so on guard. We’re all friends here.”
Drew shook his head. “I just met you. You’re no friend of mine, old man. I will, however, make use of your waystation for the night.”
Radda nodded, though his chipper glow had dimmed. “Of course, of course. Like I said, make yourself at home.”
Drew nodded and swept past him. Dropping his pack by his side, he knelt by the fire and warmed his shivering hands, not caring if he blocked the heat from reaching the others.
The woman watched him wordlessly with round green eyes, while Radda asked, “Do you have a horse, Drew?”
“I do. He’s in the stables.”
“Very well. I’ll just go and check on him and the others. This young lady is Mina, by the way. She was as forthcoming with her last name as you were, Drew. Alright, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted a moment. Won’t be long.”
With that, Radda clad himself in a big bear fur coat and opened the door. The wind and snow had been waiting for just such an opportunity, and they pounced inside and almost toppled the ageing officiant. Head down, body bent, he staggered out of the door against the wind and – after a minute of trying – managed to slam it shut again behind him.
Drew took off his fox-fur coat and hat and tossed them on the floor, where they began to seep water into the old, pitted wood, steaming at the same time. He shivered, but the fire’s warmth soon embraced him again, more fully now that he had removed his drenched coat. His fingers tingled and prickled as feeling returned to them; a sensation somewhere between pleasure and pain. He took off his boots after a few minutes and laid them by the fire, the mud on their soles dirtying the worn rug there.
All the while he sat by the fire and disrobed, he never once took his eyes off the woman Radda had named Mina. She was young and pretty, slim and pale, with big eyes and long, blonde hair tied up in a bun. She wore tartan trews and a green tunic. She returned his scrutiny with implacable ease, until he was the one who felt uncomfortable.
Older than her, bigger than her, stronger than her, he knew he should not have been afraid of her, but he was. He had been afraid of all women since leaving Thetis. He had been on the road since then, on the run. He was constantly looking over his shoulder for signs of pursuit, but he didn’t think it unfathomable that the Witches could have gotten ahead of him somehow. They were Witches, after all.
He had not even believed in magic until recently, had thought it extinct along with the Convent. What he had seen in Thetis had opened his eyes, however, and he had realised how blind he had been. He wondered what else could be real – Wizards, old Elves, Giants, the Prophet, Dragons? There were a thousand legends, and he began to think now that maybe each had at least a grain of truth to it.
Now, not knowing what the Witches were capable of, but knowing that they would likely do whatever they could to get back what he had stolen from them, Drew’s neck ached from craning to look behind. Looking the woman, Mina, in the eye, he asked himself whether she could be a Witch. She did not look particularly like a Witch; she had no warts or evil grin. She looked ordinary enough, but Drew kept his suspicions cloaked about him regardless and resolved not to let his guard down around her. He could not leave now, though; he was stuck there, Witch or no. It was getting dark, and he would be lucky to survive this storm in daylight, much less night time.
Eventually, presumably growing sick of him staring at her in silence, Mina said, “Would you like some water?”
“No, thank you,” said Drew.
“We don’t have much to eat, according to Radda, but he says whatever is in the waystation is for travellers such as us. So … help yourself if you are hungry.”
She nodded and stared into the flames. “Is it still as bad out there?” she asked after a while, nodding vaguely towards the door banging on its frame again and again.
Drew nodded. “It’s a bloody nightmare.”
She nodded again, still staring into the cavorting flames, which whipped back and forth now and again when a strong gust snuck through the door frame. “There hasn’t been a storm this severe in the Fringe as far back as I can remember. Up in the Highlands, of course, but not down here in the Lowlands.”
“You’ve been to the Highlands?” Drew blurted, surprised.
“Oh, I may look young,” she replied with a slight smile, “but I’ve travelled extensively. I’ve seen every corner of this land we call Fjelburg … from Titan’s Pass to Baldr’s Safe, from Dogoda and the Parapet to Thetis and Skalda’s Teeth.”
Drew started at the mention of Thetis, then cursed himself for a fool. Had she noticed him jump? Had he given himself away? Even if she was a Witch, could she have known who he was before that foolish twitch? Maybe. He cursed himself again regardless. He told himself that she was just comparing the southernmost points of Fjelburg with the northernmost, but his suspicions redoubled at the mention of Thetis. He wondered if she was testing him, trying to decipher his identity.
“That is … extensive,” he said at length.
She nodded. “And never have I seen a storm so bitter. Anyone would think the winds themselves were riled.” The windows rattled from the force of the wind just then, as if to punctuate her point.
Drew narrowed his eyes at her; was that a rebuke? “Where are you travelling to, Mina?”
“Odendroth. I have family there.”
“And where are you travelling from?”
“Thetis, up in the north.”
Drew’s every muscle tensed, but he forced himself to breathe calmly. It could be a coincidence, he told himself, even while another part of his brain screamed at him that he was in mortal danger, that she was a Witch, that she was here to assassinate him. He took a deep breath.
“I haven’t been to Thetis in a while,” he said, trying to seem nonchalant. “What’s it like up there nowadays?”
She finally turned her gaze on him, making his guts squirm. “It is upheaval.” Drew clenched one fist. “What with the freak storms, the populace is positively riotous. Supplies are running short. Thieves are growing more and more common.”
Drew clenched the other fist. Trying to keep his voice even and flippant, he said, “They’re an epidemic. They’re everywhere, like rats.”
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