All previous chapters are linked on the Stories page.
As usual, this is the first draft of the chapter I’m sharing here. Changes can and will be made, but this version is good enough I’m not ashamed to put it out there.
This weeks musical accompaniment is a bit on the trippy side. That isn’t quite reflected in the story, but it’s still part of what I listen to while I write, and maybe you’ll enjoy it too.
Emma’s Story – Chapter 5
The sun set some time ago when a young woman and her horses cross a bridge lit by lanterns, over a river black with cold. Past the river, where two hills meet, the end of her journey awaits. She sees the lights of the village square from here.
A large open space, with a well in the middle and surrounded by buildings on three sides. Lamps hang next to doors, and candles burn in windows, telling of warmth and comfort, wishing her welcome.
A young woman has not seen so many buildings in one place anywhere else. More than a full hand’s worth. She does not even know what they’re all for. The inn and the shop, the blacksmith and the stables – those she knows, for she’s been here once before, many years ago, with her father.
Other buildings hide among those, tall and square and strange, with unlit doors and dark windows. She does not know them, and she does not look at them long. They are not for her.
She brings her carriage to a halt in front of the inn. Steam rises from her horses, clearly visible in the light of the lamps by the door and the candles in the windows. They are sturdy beasts these horses, but they carry a long days worth of work in their legs and are in sore need of rest.
A young woman will see to her friends soon. She just needs to declare her presence in the village to someone. This village does not know her, and it must be given a chance to offer its hospitality.
She’ll make it quick. She owes it to her horses to see them safe with food and warmth. Only once they’re taken care of will she see to herself. But first, her stranger’s duty.
– – –
Emma shrugged out from under the blanket and stood up. Groaning, she stretched her hands up in the air – flexing her fingers and stomping her feet, bare toes against the floor of the sled. She shrugged and hopped down from the sled, stumbled to the left and fell on her face.
“Boots!” she cursed, spitting snow. “Stupid! Boots!”
She lay where she’d fallen, checking to make sure she hadn’t broken anything. Her knees hurt. Her hands and arms and nose hurt. Her left hip hurt, but it didn’t seem as if anything was actually broken. No need to cry for help.
“Boots…” she muttered, and got to her feet.
She brushed the snow from her clothes, rubbed at her nose and had a look around. Karolina and Ussilago both stood with their heads turned towards her, but other than that the village square lay empty. Sure, she hurt a bit, but at least no one had seen her.
“Right.” Emma straightened up and addressed the horses. “Right! I’ll just go in here and say hello and then I’ll be right back.” She nodded to the inn, brushed her palms against each other, and took a deep breath. “Right.”
A moment later Emma turned and walked the few steps to the door of the Kuulis Wood village inn. She’d reached her destination.
– – –
Warm air, and the smell of burning wood, cooking food, and centuries of accidentally spilled cider hit her as she stepped inside. Sweat broke out on her face and neck, and she tugged at her scarf. She took a deep breath, took off her hat, and shook her hair loose. While taking off her mittens and stuffing them into her hat, she had a look around.
A large room, with two wooden pillars holding up crossbeams in the ceiling, lay before her. Tables, most empty, but a few occupied, stood scattered between the pillars and lined up along the walls. Each table held a burning candle, and in a big fireplace in the far wall a kettle of something steaming hung over the flames.
From one of the beams overhead, a small speckled cat looked down at her.
Around the tables, people lifted their heads to look at her, but soon turned their attention back to their conversations. A few of them glanced over to a small counter in the right wall, and to a young woman standing behind it.
Shorter than Emma, and a little less round of face, she wore her black hair in a thick braid. She’d pulled it forward over her shoulder and the tip reached almost to her waist. Her hands were busy wiping down a mug with a dish rag, but like everyone else, she’d turned to look at Emma in the doorway. When their eyes met, the woman smiled and nodded in greeting.
Emma straightened her back, ran her fingers through her hair, and walked over.
“Good evening. How can I help you?” Without taking her eyes off Emma, the woman put the mug she’d been drying down on the counter and fished up another from a tub of water. “I’m Trula, welcome to Kuulis Wood.” She wiped at the mug with the rag, held it up in front of her eyes to study a spot on the side, and then put it down next to the tub. “Hungry?”
“Greetings Trula. I’m Emma, from Rastebo.” She bowed her head and curtsied. “I’m here to seek the ear of your village elder.”
“Seek the ear?” Trula raised an eyebrow. “It was still attached to his head last I saw.”
Emma’s back grew rigid, and she struggled to keep her face neutral. “Ehmm…”
Eye’s sparkling, Trula’s face broke up into a big grin. “Over there.” She leaned over the counter and pointed at a group of men at a table over by the fireplace. “The old fool in the green shirt. That’s Orvar – leader of the village council. He’s the one you want.”
“Thank you.” Emma looked over to where Trula had pointed. Three men, grey haired and balding, sat around a small square table, deep in conversation, and each with a mug in front of them.
“Err…” She turned back Trula and cleared her throat. “Do you think he’ll be here a while? I need to see to my horses. Is there somewhere I can stable them for the night?”
“Oh, they’ll be here alright.” Trula put her hands on her hips and heaved an exaggerated sigh. “But don’t worry about it. I’ll get my dad to take care of your horses.” She smiled and hitched her thumb towards a window next to the door. “They’re the ones just outside, right?”
“Yes.” She peered towards the window but couldn’t make out anything on the other side. “That’s them. Karolina and Ussilago. Karolina’s the black one.” Her face relaxed into a smile and some of the tension left her spine and shoulders. Then she stiffened again. “Are you sure it won’t be no trouble?”
“None at all, girl. Old man’s sat in the kitchen all day. He’ll be happy to get out and get some fresh air.” Trula winked, and her eyes sparkled with mischief. “You’ll want a room for the night as well I take it?”
“Yes please.” Emma nodded. “That would be very nice.”
“Long day, is it?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “You could say that.”
“Very well then, we’ll take care of you.” Trula picked up another mug from the tub and started wiping it dry. “Now go speak to those old fools before they get too drunk to tell you from the horses.”
“Yes.” Emma shrugged and straightened up. “I guess I’d better.” She threw the woman a smile and headed over to speak with the old men by the fire.
– – –
“Greetings gentlemen.” Emma stepped up to the table, curtsied, and turned her attention to the old man in the green shirt. “I understand you’re Orvar, leader of the village council. I’m Emma, from Rastebo, and I would like to have a word with you regarding an urgent village matter.”
The old man looked up. He leaned back in his chair and hitched his elbow up on the back rest. He frowned, squinted at her, and eventually he nodded. “Greetings, Emma from Rastebo. I am indeed. These old rascals are Niklas and Frisbjorn.” He reached out his arm and pointed at a chair at an empty table next to them. “Sit down and speak – they hear with my ears.”
“Thank you.” Emma pulled the chair over and sat down.
Niklas, wearing a knitted blue sweater even in the heat by the fire, leaned forwards on his elbows and peered at her. “You must be thirsty if you’ve traveled all the way from Rastebo.” Grinning, he turned towards the counter over in the right wall, and knocked his mug against the table to call for attention. “Trula! A cider for our guest please!”
“No!” The third man, Frisbjorn – shorter, thinner, and older then the other two – twisted around in his chair and waved his arms in the air. “No! Stop! Trula! Make that a hot whiskey. It’s cold out there.” He turned back to Emma with a big smile on his face, several teeth missing. “We’ll take care of you lass. Don’t you worry your pretty little cheeks.”
“Thank you very much.” Blushing, Emma cast down her eyes. “A hot whiskey would be great. Not that I mind cider,” she hurried to add, clearing her throat and glancing over at Niklas opposite. “It really is pretty cold out there.”
Orvar took a sip of his cider, set the mug down with a thud, and crossed his arms over his chest. “So, lass, tell us. What brings you to our neck of the woods?” Surely you’re not here for the company of old farts like us – enchanting though it may be.” He chuckled and exchanged a glance with Frisbjorn across from him at the table.
“No.” Emma smiled and forced out a little laugh. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid that’s not it. I’m here to ask for help.”
“Help?” Orvar raised an eyebrow at her. “What can we do for you? Stocks running low up there?”
Emma’s lips twitched and she hurried to smooth out her face and put on a smile. “No, not exactly.” Sure, Rastebo wasn’t big, but they knew how to take care of themselves. They could manage their stores. She took a deep breath. “We have a bear.”
The grins around the table turned serious.
Orvar leaned back in his chair, rubbed at his chin, and squinted at her. “A bear you say?”
“Yes.” Emma paused and looked around the table to make sure she had the attention of all three of them. “It came down from the mountains a few weeks back and holed up in a hollow near Karstensborg, just outside the village. It’s been attacking our sheep sheds and scaring the villagers.” She took a deep breath and wiped any hint of a smile from her face. “Our forest isn’t safe anymore.”
“Ah…” Orvar nodded. He tilted his head back to gaze up into the ceiling, and then turned back to Emma again. “I see how that would be a predicament.”
“Have you tried to chase it off?” said Niklas.
Emma clenched her jaws. They really didn’t think much of her little village, did they? “We tried, but we were too few and the chants didn’t call true.” She took a deep breath and pulled out her most charming smile. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Aha?” Orvar raised an eyebrow at her.
“Yes.” Her smile wavered, but she steeled herself and kept it on. “We decided to ask for help from all the nearby villages. We want to gather up a larger group to try and scare the bear off again. We’ve sent to Storvak for help from a monk, and shaman Cherry Blossom will probably come help too.”
“But it’s winter.” Frisbjorn frowned at her. “The land sleeps.”
“Shush you.” Orvar shot the wrinkled old man a glare. “Any help is help.” He cleared his throat and turned back to Emma. “So… You’re wondering if we would be willing to send some voices for your choir.”
“Yes please.” Emma nodded. She smoothed out her face and sat up a little straighter. ”We figured that the larger the choir, the stronger the chant, and the better our chances of sending the bear back to where it came from.”
No one said a thing. No reply came. Emma’s stomach grew cold. Had she said something wrong? She squirmed and looked around. Right beside her – inches from her shoulder – stood Trula.
Smiling, but without a word, and without meeting her eyes, the woman set down a small earthenware cup in front of Emma. Then she turned and left.
“That reasoning is sound,” said Orvar once Trula was out of earshot. He leaned forward on his elbows and turned to face the other two men at the table – first Niklas, then Frisbjorn. “What do you say lads, should we help out?”
Emma picked up the little cup and cradled it in her hands. It barely fit a mouthful – perhaps two. The rough surface warmed her palms, and the faint smoke rising from within hinted at evenings free from work and chores long completed.
Niklas cleared his throat. “It’s not for us to order people about.”
She move the cup to her nose, closed her eyes, and let the fumes find their way into her. A campfire by a forest lake. Morning mists rising from the valleys. Pipe smoke and sheep and walking over ground covered by fallen pine needles on a warm summer night.
“We should ask though,” said Frisbjorn. “We can call a meeting.”
Touching the cup to her lips she tilted it ever so slightly and sipped the warm liquid. Gold and brown and moss covered rocks. Fire in the hearth, stew in the pot, and a good friend with no need to talk.
“We could,” said Orvar. “But it’s late in the day and not many would come.”
Emma closed her eyes and let her shoulders slump. Her head fell back, and she let out a long satisfied breath. A smile grew in her belly, rose through her chest, and her entire face bloomed with joy and peace.
Forcing her mind back to the present, Emma raised her head and opened her eyes.
Three wrinkled old men studied her where she sat – grumpy faces and smiling eyes. No one said a thing. She’d done it. She’d delivered her message.
Everything was going to be fine.
She took another sip, cleared her throat, and set down her cup. “I’m not expected back until the day after tomorrow.” With a shrug she straightened up and held her head high. “I’ve got a sled and horses, and I’d be happy to have a few people ride with me. I can take a handful.”
“Horses!” Niklas jolted upright and almost knocked his mug over. “Are they being looked after?” He got to his feet and waved a hand in the air. “Trula! Is anyone looking after the horses outside?”
“Long done, uncle,” Trula called back. “You can sit down again.”
“We can call a meeting for tomorrow afternoon,” said Frisbjorn once Niklas had returned to his chair.
Orvar stroked his chin and nodded. “That we can do. That we can do.”
“It’s all I can ask,” said Emma. “I don’t want to force anyone to go who doesn’t want to.” Still smiling, she traced a finger along the edge of the cup – coarse, but friendly, and well rounded.
“Of course not,” said Orvar. “But we can at least ask. It’s in our interest too that your village is able to use its lands without fear.” He chuckled and exchanged glances with the other two men. “Right, lads?”
Emma steeled herself and kept the smile on her face. “Ehm…” She grabbed the cup and took a quick sip. A few drops splashed over the edge and wet her skin. Blushing, she licked the warm liquid off her fingers. “Yes. There is that,” she mumbled and stared into the cup.
“Well lass, that’s that settled then.” Orvar clapped his hands together and beamed at her. “We’ll have a meeting tomorrow and you can tell everyone what’s happened and ask if anyone wants to come and help out.”
“Thanks.” Emma nodded. “That’s very kind of you.”
“Nonsense.” He waved his hand dismissively. “It’s the least we can do after you drove here all day to talk to us.” Leaning forward, he placed a wrinkled old hand on hers. “You must be tired?”
“And hungry?” said Frisbjorn.
“Trula!” Niklas straightened up and waved his arms in the air. “You got something to eat around here?” he yelled for all the room to hear. “Set our girl from Rastebo a meal will you.”
A few curious faces turned to look at them, but for the most part no one really seemed all that interested. Not that there were many people around anyway. Emma crossed her arms over her chest and suppressed a yawn. A bit of food would be good, and a bed. She’d sleep like a white dragon.
“Will do uncle.” Trula had made her way over to their table. She place a hand on Emma’s shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze. “Hey, Emma, why don’t you come with me, and you can have a table of your own in peace and quiet. No need to sit and listen to these old farts lie about lost summers.”
Niklas snorted. “You watch your mouth lassie, there’s nothing wrong with our lies.”
“Aw, shush now.” Trula stuck out her tongue at him. “Show some hospitality and shut your trap. Emma, come here.”
Next chapter is available here.