This is the second to last chapter of Emma’s Story. The end is drawing near.
If you haven’t read the previous chapters they’re all available on the Stories page, here.
As usual, this is the first draft on the chapter. It’s been read by one test reader to check for the worst errors and inconsistencies, but other than that it’s pretty raw. It’s good enough that I’m happy to share it, but it can and will be changed before the final version of the story is published.
This weeks musical accompaniment is provided by Polish DJ CJ Art (a new discovery of mine) through his Artelized moniker. In this particular set he’s joined by Swedish psychedelic trance act Tegma (old favourites). Together they provide a great soundscape to serve as background for this chapter.
Emma’s Story – Chapter 12
It is done now.
A summer’s daughter brings her horses to a halt.
The journey is over. The destination is reached. The road ends here.
Log cabins huddle close together around an open yard. Chimneys peek from snow-covered roofs. Wisps of smoke reach for the stars above.
Soon, a new day will dawn, and it will be wonderful. The sky is clear. The wind is kind. The world is dressed in freshly fallen snow. It will be glorious.
Soon, but not just yet. For the night is still dark, and the stars still twinkle, and in timbered houses, hearts of winter dream of hunting.
Soon, a new day will dawn, and a summer’s daughter grows into a young woman.
– – –
A door opened in a cabin somewhere to her right, and Emma looked up. Two men stepped out into the yard – dark shapes in the pre-dawn light. She swallowed. They’d know where Torkel was. She should talk to them.
Taking a deep breath she pushed herself to her feet. Her legs wobbled, and she took a moment to steady herself before letting go and hopping down on the ground.
Something itched just at her edge of vision, and she stopped to rub her hands against her eyes. When she looked up again the men stood beside her, their contours outlined by a faint red glow that faded away when she thought about it.
Two men – old, but tall and broad of shoulder. Both of them wrinkled and worn, both of them with long grey beards covering their faces. The one on the right wore a knitted woollen hat, and the other sported a thick mane of hair that flared ever so slightly red when the wind touched it.
The men stared at her.
“Hey,” said the man with the hat.
The other man nodded, but didn’t take his eyes off her. “Hey.”
She waited a moment, and looked from one man to the other, but no more words came. They just stood there, looking at her – waiting.
Emma cleared her throat.
“Uhm… Good morning. My name’s Emma… I come from Rastebo.” She paused, pulled a smile on to her face, and tried to look friendly and confident. “It’s north of here, down in the hills.” Twisting around, she raised her hand and pointed back the way she’d come. Silly, really. She’d already made a fool of herself. Of course they knew what way north was.
Swallowing once more, she pulled herself together and straightened up. “I’m looking for my friend Torkel. He should be here. Do you know where he is?”
“No.” The man with the mane turned to his friend.
The hat shrugged and said nothing.
“Oh…” Emma sighed. Typical. Now she’d have to wait. “But he’s here, right? You’ve seen him?”
They both looked at her.
“No.” The man in the hat shook his head.
Emma gasped. They should have known. Why didn’t they know? They lived here, didn’t they? The warmth and safety of a loving home still clung to them. He must have come here. Maybe they’d been out – hunting or something.
“But…” Emma’s heart raced. “He must have… Are you sure?” He must be here. She’d come all this way. “Could it be you missed him? Maybe someone else has seen him?”
The man with the mane frowned and poked the arm of his friend. “Maybe Holm?”
The two men looked at each other. Why were they so slow? Didn’t they know she was worried. Why hadn’t they seen Torkel? Where was he? What had he done?
Why didn’t they say anything?
Unspoken words of familiarity sailed back and forth between the two old men like little red puffs of smoke.
Eventually, the hat nodded. “Maybe.”
The mane turned to Emma, and something that was probably meant to be a smile twisted up his face. “Breakfast?”
Emma took a deep breath and tried to compose herself. Panicking wouldn’t solve anything. “Yes please. Breakfast would be very nice.” She paused for a moment and looked at the two men. “Who’s Holm?”
“Patriarch Holm,” said the hat.
The mane nodded. “He’ll know if someone’s been here.”
– – –
Stars shine down on a yard, where a young woman follows two old men to a homestead’s hall.
Larger than any other building in sight, yet still hiding under thick layers of snow, the main hall is where the winter fylk meet and eat.
Inside, it is warm and smells of burning wood. A young woman stops and takes in the room. It is good to be out of the cold.
She sees a great hall, with a hearth in the middle where a fire burns low. Memories of stories hang in the air, waiting to be told again. She sees a loft, where warm bodies dream in safety and comfort. She sees a fireplace, an oven, and row upon row of pots and pans and kettles and trays. She sees chairs and benches, rugs and furs, tables and shelves.
She sees a home where people live, only right now it sleeps. She hears its heart beat.
– – –
The hat pointed at one of the benches over by the hearth. “Sit.”
“Holm will be along later,” said the mane.
Emma fidgeted. “Okay…” She looked after the two men as they walked over towards the cooking area at the far end. “Uhm… Do you need help with anything?”
“No,” said the hat.
“Just wait there.” The mane pointed at the bench again.
Emma looked from the bench to the door and then back to the two men. She cleared her throat. “I should see to my horses. Do you have somewhere I can put them up?”
The hat stopped. He looked at Emma, and then at his friend with the hair. The mane nodded and started back towards the entrance.
“Come.” He waved at Emma to follow and walked out the door they’d just come in through.
Once outside he stopped and pointed at one of the cabins on the other side of the yard. “That one. Door’s open.”
“Thank you very much. I’ll put them up there and then I’ll come back here.”
The mane smiled, or tried to – probably. He clapped her on the shoulder and returned inside.
In the yard, by the sled, her horses stood waiting, their heads hanging and their eyes glowing red.
– – –
A young woman takes her friends inside. Two horses, brown and black, are happy to get out of the cold. They are hungry and tired and look forward to rest.
A stable is dark, but it is still a stable, and a daughter of summer is not a stranger. She knows her way around. She sees where local horses stand, and puts her friends in empty boxes.
Warm blankets, fresh water, oats, and hay she finds for her friends. All that, and a stable’s old cat. It’s been a good night it tells her – local horses slept throughout, and nothing bothersome happened at all.
She brings food and water to her friends, and they are happy. She asks a cat about her young man, but it has not seen him. It has seen a mouse and it was under the tack box and it stayed there all night.
In a chest in a corner she finds brushes and combs, and she puts them to use.
But her friends know she is tired. They know she is worn. They were there and they saw it and they worry about her. She is such a little thing and she needs to be careful.
Her horses assure her they’re fine. They urge her to go.
A young woman argues, but horses are stubborn. They are tougher and stronger and she should not be wasting her efforts when there are better things to do. Two horses will be fine.
She should find her young man, like a daughter of summer once set out to do.
– – –
Emma stepped into the main hall. She pulled the door closed behind her and started over towards the bench the old men had pointed out to her earlier. It’d be good to sit down in the warmth of the fire. Breakfast would be good too. Hopefully the patriarch would speak to her soon. He’d know where Torkel was.
“You there!” A big voice filled the room. “Sapling. You must be that Emma from Rastebo that I hear so much about.”
An enormous man with a big black beard strode through the room towards her, holding a baby to his chest and waving a big wooden spoon in his free hand. His bald head gleamed in the light of the fire, and tied around his belly he wore a big apron that had probably been white at some point very long ago.
Emma had to crane her neck to look up at him. He stood easily a head taller than she. She swallowed, and her face grew warm, but she did not step back and she did not flinch. Sapling indeed.
“Yes. I am she.” She smoothed out her face and put her hands on her hips. “Are you Patriarch Holm?”
“That’s Holm to you sapling.” Grinning, the big man shifted the spoon over to his other hand and gave Emma’s shoulder a firm squeeze. “You’re not one of mine. Come here and have a seat and tell me your story. I hear you’re looking for someone?” He patted her on the back and gave her a light shove in the direction of the hearth.
“Yes.” Head held high she marched over to the bench. She could walk on her own.
Waiting, with her hands on her hips, she watched as Holm pulled over a chair for himself. Managing both spoon and baby he sat down, the chair groaning under his weight.
Emma waited a little longer and then she sat down too. “I’m looking for my friend Torkel. We thought he would have come here, but the two men I met earlier said they hadn’t seen him.”
“Heiko and Kari?” Holm grinned wide. “They never see anything. They only have eyes for each other those two.” He winked at her, eyes sparkling with mischief.
“Err…” Emma frowned at him. What did he mean?
She looked over to the end of the hall where the two men worked on getting breakfast ready. One of them stirred a steaming pot, the other kneaded a dough on a big table, still wearing his knitted hat – two old men preparing a meal.
Holm chuckled and cleared his throat. “You did right to wait for me. This is my homestead, and I know all who come here, even lost little summer kin such as yourself and your Torkel. If he’d come here, I’d have known.”
“Had?” Emma clamped her mouth shut. She swallowed, and her stomach filled with ice. “You mean he really didn’t come here?”
“Haven’t had a visitor since shaman Frozen Blood came through just after the mid-winter feast.”
“You haven’t?” Emma stared around the room. “But… But…” Her head spun. Wasn’t there anyone else she could ask? “Where’s Torkel gone then?”
The baby squirmed and began to cry. Tiny hands pawed at the big man’s chest. Holm rocked gently back and forth, and under the chair’s loud protests, the baby grew quiet.
He gazed down at the little bundle in his arms for a moment, love shining out of his eyes. Then he sighed, and looked up. “I don’t know sapling. I don’t know – never heard of him.”
Emma’s shoulders slumped, and she let out a weak breath. “Oh…”
She stared at the floor in front of her. What had she done? Why hadn’t she waited? She’d wasted the Lady’s gift and ran off on a whim in the middle of the night for no good reason. Her stomach churned and her heart beat too fast and the dirt on the floor danced back and forth. She should have waited. She hadn’t fixed anything. She hadn’t set anything right.
Holm shifted in his seat, careful not to jostle the baby. “What made you think he’d be here? It’s been years since any summer kin came through last.”
Everything was wrong. She had to go back.
“Uhm… I…” Emma took a deep breath and stared at the door out. She should leave. Now. “We…” She swallowed, clasped her hands in her lap, and cast down her eyes. “Everyone thought he’d come here to get help with the bear.”
“A bear, you say?” Holm looked at her. He tapped the spoon against his nose, and peered at her through half closed eyelids.
“Aye, yes.” Emma swallowed. “We had a bear come down from the mountains recently. It took up in the old hollow in Karstensborg and we haven’t been able to scare it away.”
A big grin spread across his face and Holm chuckled. “I get it now. You asked the bear nicely to please leave, and the bear told you to go work a sweat, so your Torkel thought he’d go ask us to get rid of it.” He nodded and pointed with the spoon at her. “Is that about it?”
“Ahem…” Emma pressed her lips together and sat up a little straighter.
She glared at him. And then her shoulders slumped and she hung her head and really, what was the stupid point anyway. That was exactly it.
“Yes…” she said. “At least the last bit.”
Holm let out a long, slow breath and leaned back in his chair. Careful not to jostle the baby. “Tell me sapling… Your Torkel, is he daft or something?”
“What?” Emma’s jaw dropped.
Grinning, he winked at her. “Or is it you?”
Emma shot to her feet. Her vision flared red, and she grew two feet taller. She reached out her arm and jabbed at him with a finger. “Well excuse me Lord Snowball! My Torkel is a bit of a wild-brain, and he doesn’t listen and he gets some silly ideas, but he’s not daft.” She clenched her teeth and crossed her arms over chest. Breathing heavily through her nose she glared down at him. “And neither am I.”
Still smiling, Holm looked back up at her. “Then why would you think he’d come here?”
What kind of a question was that? Of course he’d come here. He’d suggested it himself. Where else would he go? Why wouldn’t he?
“But…” Emma’s mouth fell open. “Everyone thought…” Her face grew red and she swallowed and sat down again. “It seemed the most likely explanation when he didn’t come back.”
“Yes yes, I know what you thought.” Holm sighed and shifted in his seat, holding a big hand over the baby. “Your fool husband would bring down the blood thirsty winter fylkin on you and make a mockery of your attempt at scaring the bear away from your lands.” He grinned and pointed at her with the spoon. “That’s what you all thought. Every single one of you.”
“Ehm… No, well…” Emma stopped herself and took a deep breath. “Yes. Yes, that’s what I thought, and that’s why I’m here. Are you saying that’s wrong?”
Holm cleared his throat and looked her straight in the eye. “Yes that’s what I’m saying. You summer kin always thinks we’re savage brutes, but we too have our honour.”
Blushing, Emma looked away. “Ehm…” She looked at the floor. She looked at the hearth. “I’m sorry…” She looked at the two men preparing breakfast over in the corner. “I didn’t mean to…” Her belly rumbled.
“We’ve been here for as long as you have. We know you, and we know you have your pride just as we have ours. It would take more than a lone lad with a foolish notion for us to go hunting in summer’s lands.” He paused and looked at her. His mouth hidden by his beard, and the smile gone from his eyes.
Emma swallowed. She forced herself to meet his gaze, and nodded.
Holm nodded back, his face still serious. “You wouldn’t come and harvest our mushrooms. We don’t come and kill your bears.”
“Oh…” Her shoulders slumped and her heart sank. She’d been so stupid.
“Exactly. It’s just not done.”
“Yes… I see now,” she mumbled.
They’d all been stupid. But she was the one who’d really done it. She was the one who’d wasted the gift of their goddess to go and insult her kindred – for no good reason whatsoever. She’d ruined everything, and Torkel was still gone. She had to get back.
She took a deep breath and straightened up. She lifted her head and faced her host – the patriarch of the winter fylk, the biggest man she’d ever seen, the glue that held the homestead together. Eye to eye she faced him, with her back straight, and her chest proud.
“Holm. I must apologize. I’ve been shortsighted, and rude. Please accept my apology.”
Holm looked at her for the longest time. He looked down at the baby on his arm, and then gazed off into nothing. He rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand, took a deep breath, and let it out again with a low whistle.
Finally, he cleared his throat and turned back to Emma. “Yes. Rude and shortsighted you have been, but you can’t apologise for the ways of your people. It’s who you are, and who we are. I will not accept your apology.”
“What?” Eyes wide she stared at him. Her stomach clenched and her mind reeled. Rejection hammered at her from all sides.
Holm nodded. “From you, no apology is needed. Instead, you will have breakfast at my hearth and then rest under my roof. You will accept my hospitality, won’t you?”
“Rest? But…” She didn’t have time to rest. Red flames licked at her edge of vision. “I need to find Torkel. If he’s not here I need to find him.” He could be anywhere. Outside that door, hiding in the snow, among the trees. Anywhere.
“Sapling.” Holm sighed and shook his head. “You’re exhausted. Rastebo is a long way from here and the sun is barely above the tree tops. You rode all night and your horses are tired. When did you last sleep?”
“Sleep?” She couldn’t sleep now. How did he expect her to sleep now? Couldn’t he hear how the blood roared through her veins?
“You need to rest and then go straight back home. Your Torkel will find his way back sooner or later.”
“But…” She didn’t have time for this. She had to do something. Go somewhere. The door.
Holm leaned forward in his chair, putting his free hand against his knee and holding the baby to his chest. “Your eyes. The whites are carrot-red. You will rest here, or you will die in the forest when the Lady’s gift wears off. You – and your horses too.” He pushed himself to his feet and tossed the spoon onto the chair where he’d sat.
Her eyes? There was nothing wrong with her eyes. “But, Torkel…” He’d done something bad. She knew it. Something really really bad – and the carrot hadn’t done anything anyway.
The big man took a step forward and placed a heavy hand on her shoulder. He gave it a firm squeeze and looked at her with big sad eyes. “Your Torkel is lost to you.”
Emma’s throat clenched up. She couldn’t breathe. What had she done? Everything was wrong. Her mouth fell open. Her stomach fell out from under her. Her spine grew weak, and only Holm’s grip on her shoulder kept her from toppling over.
He didn’t let go. He gripped her shoulder and kept her upright. “You don’t know where he is. You barely even know where you are, and you’re asleep on your feet. You will eat and you will sleep and then you’ll go home. You will accept my hospitality.”
Emma raised her head. Tears stung her eyes and blurred her vision. She looked at the face of the man at the other end of the arm with the hand that clasped her shoulder. So far away. So kind, and yet so alien. So far away.
She closed her eyes, swallowed, and took a deep breath. ”Yes… I will.” Her throat hurt. Her eyes burned. She sniffled, rubbed at her nose, and forced herself to look at him. “Thank you.”
That’s all for now. This is where the twelfth chapter ends.
Next chapter can be found here.