Okay, that really didn’t go as planned at all. Let’s put it behind us, forget about it, and move on.
Fannar told Pall to go and babysit Kala. Perhaps he didn’t use those exact words, and perhaps it wasn’t exactly what he meant, but that’s the gist of it more or less. Get over there. Let Kala know you’re in the house and then just stay there. Kitchen’s probably best. That’s the only room that’s warm. Please see to it the girl gets some food as well, and yourself too, then you can do whatever you want.
Don’t worry about making conversation. She doesn’t talk. Should suit you just fine.
It should, shouldn’t it?
Only well, Pall still remembers the last time, some weeks back, maybe a month now, or was it two? Time flies doesn’t it? He’d come to see Vissla, and he’d seen the girl as well, just a husk of a person. Skin and bones with not a spark of life in her eyes.
Might as well sit a corpse by the table for all that it would make a difference. Not quite his thing, that. He didn’t like people when they were alive, but they were better than dead ones.
That’s where we are now. Pall’s walking through the darkness of the villages. Alone with his thoughts, finally. And boy does he have a lot to think about – for being him that is.
Okay, so that didn’t come out quite right, but you know what I mean. People. Not his thing. Used to being alone and in control of the situation.
Anyway. Pall’s on his way to Kala. He’s brought his backpack and his rifle, but he left his skis and poles in a snow drift outside the station house. He won’t be going far.
Let’s see how handles this. A lone girl who doesn’t talk. No pressure Pall. You can do this.
– – –
Stars twinkled above. The moon hung low in the north, barely half full.
The walls of the buildings rose black out of the snow. Tall and imposing. Blocking the horizon, hemming him in.
He knew where he was going though. Outskirts of the village – upslope, towards the mountainside. Last house. There. That one.
Pall stopped just outside. Someone had been here recently. Fannar – obviously. The steps up to the veranda had been swept, and two pairs of skis stood next to each other in a pile of snow beside the path.
So that’s how it was. Pall sighed. He wouldn’t have had to come after all. There wasn’t anything to worry about. Well, too late now. At least he’d know he’d done the right thing. The decision to come had been the right one. It hadn’t been needed, and it had caused all kind of fuss and misery, but at least he’d done the right thing.
Well – tried to.
He wouldn’t make the same mistake again. He’d make stupid sure Kala knew he was there.
Keeping that in mind, Pall climbed the stairs up to the veranda of what he’d once known as Leifur’s house. Firm steps, without hesitation. No sneaking. If Kala was awake she’d have heard him. If she wasn’t, well, he’d just have to make sure she knew anyway.
He shifted his rifle over into his left hand and hammered at the door. Three times. Five. Eight.
“Kala!” he shouted. “Kala! It’s me, Pall. I’m coming in.”
Fannar had said the door would be open, and it was.
Inside, it was dark. A small hallway. Clothes probably hung from pegs on the walls. Boots probably stood lined up along the floor. There should be a door in front of him. The kitchen should be behind that. That’s what Fannar had said.
– – –
There is someone in the house.
– – –
“Kala,” he yelled, and pulled the door shut. Firmly, with a thud, but without slamming it.
“Kala! I’m inside.”
In front of him, the door cracked open. Just a little. Enough for a thin line of light to cut through the darkness. Behind it, someone moved, and then nothing.
The warm light of candles, soft and inviting.
Pall stepped forward. He pushed the door open, entered the kitchen, and closed the door behind him.
Kala sat at the table over by the window.
She’d cut her hair since he’d last seen her. It had been really long, all the way down her back. Now, well, it wasn’t as short as his, but he was a man, and she wasn’t old, and then he’d remembered about the ear and the fire and he shouldn’t be judging. You couldn’t cut your ear off if you had a bunch of hair getting in the way.
He could respect that.
“Greetings,” he said, and nodded.
Kala said nothing.
He’d known she wouldn’t. It’s what they’d told him, but it still felt a little bit odd.
She seemed okay though. Much better than last time. A bit thin, and way too tense. Even he could tell she was tense, and he knew stupid well he wasn’t any good with people. It’s gotta be real bad if even he could tell.
Pall squirmed. Was it him? Did he make her nervous?
“Fannar said I should come here.” He paused and cleared his throat. “I’m Pall. You remember me, right?”
– – –
Nothing. Not a crack. Sealed shut.
– – –
They’d spoken only this summer. Surely she’d remember. He wasn’t that special, but, you know, she’d remember him, right? That wasn’t the only time they’d met. He’d been her recently too, but she probably didn’t remember that.
He shifted on his feet, adjust his grip on the rifle.
Rifle? His face heated up. He’d completely forgotten. You didn’t step into someone else’s kitchen with a weapon in your hands. You carried it safe and put it away first chance.
“I’m sorry,” he sputtered.
He turned around. Turned his back to her – gave her that trust – and put his weapon down – on the floor behind the door. She couldn’t miss a gesture like that, even if she didn’t acknowledge it. She’d know what it meant.
Okay, that’s done. He’d made a mistake and he’d done his best to make up for it. Time to forget about it and move on. He dropped his backpack on the floor next to the rifle and tossed his parka on top of the backpack.
“Fannar said I could use the kitchen.”
He probably should have expected this. They’d told him she was a bit odd.
– – –
Empty. Hollow. Alone. Isolated.
– – –
Well, if she wanted food, she could tell him. He wasn’t that hungry yet. She could wait. Probably didn’t do anything else all day anyway.
Pall pulled out a chair from to table and sat down opposite Kala. The girl didn’t move at all.
He could see the other side of her head from here, where there was no ear anymore. It must have mostly healed now. A jumble of uneven scars and a few little flaps of skin that hung from her head where an ear should have been.
Probably once her hair grew out you wouldn’t notice.
Other than that, she looked sort of okay-ish. He’d expected worse. Last he was here she hadn’t eaten at all. Starved to the bone she’d been. Frail and weak. Now her cheeks had fattened up and her skin lay taut over her face.
She still wouldn’t look at him, just stared straight ahead with empty eyes. Someone must have opened the door for him though, and there wasn’t anyone else here. He could believe there was a heart beating in her chest. She looked alive.
“You look better,” he said.
The girl made no sound.
Maybe he should get some tea going. There would be some in one of the cupboards, or he could use his own. He had some in the pouch in his backpack.
“You want some tea?”
He should just shut up and stop trying to make conversation.
“I’ll make some tea.”
Found mugs in one cupboard, and tea in another. Fir needles and dried blueberries. Same as he did himself.
Soon enough, he sprinkled tea into mugs and poured steaming hot water over it.
Sitting at the table again, he sipped his tea. Tried to think of something to say, and drew a blank. Well, let’s just not then. He had nothing to say, and she wouldn’t answer anyway.
The tea wasn’t bad. Probably had more blueberries then he used. He’d try that next year. Maybe he could try cranesberries too, he’d heard that was good, but they didn’t grow anywhere near his. Then again, if he had to wander up into the valleys he might as well get some needles from the smallfirs there. That was supposed to be good too.
He’d have to go to Vargtand this summer anyway. Needed new spores for the mushroom patch, and the fylkin knew their mushrooms like no one else. The winter fire would burn soon. Snow speaker Littlecorpse would be there. He should let her know. She wouldn’t have anything for him at this time of year, but it was good form to let people know you’d come pay them a visit if you knew you would.
Kala reached out her hand, grabbed her mug, and sipped her tea. Then she sat the mug down again.
Pall stared at her. He’d almost missed it, so lost in thought he’d been.
She’d moved. There was someone there. A person hid in the body. A tingle of excitement stirred in his belly, and a smile spread on his face. He’d made her react to something. He’d reached her.
It wasn’t much, but it was something. Then again, Fannar had managed to drag her out on skis on the ice nearly a days travel from here. He was a shaman though. He knew how to deal with strange people like this, how to get them to do things. He, Pall, didn’t.
Probably best to shut up and not ruin it. It’s when he lost himself in thought she’d moved. Perhaps there was a connection. She relaxed when he did.
Pall tried to relax again. It didn’t work.
He was much too excited, and Kala just sat there again, stock still and staring straight ahead. She had moved though. Really. He’d seen it with his own eyes. In the light of the candle on the table he could see the marks where her lips had touched the mug.
It’s got to be a good thing that she moved.
If he could forget himself and relax again, perhaps she’d soften up a little. He ought to do something, not just sit around staring at her trying to force himself to relax.
– – –
Let’s fast forward a bit. I think you get the point.
They sat like that for a while. Pall trying to figure out what to do next, and Kala lost in whatever world she lived in.
Eventually, Pall got around to cooking up a meal. It’s not that he was very hungry, but it was something to do to pass the time. He couldn’t just be sitting still waiting for nothing to happen you know.
– – –
Let me out.
– – –
So Pall cooked, looked through cupboards and shelves, putting something together out of what he could find. Put a kettle on the boil, shook a pan. Got lost in the task, forgot where he was and started humming to himself.
Without him noticing, behind his back, Kala relaxed.
You couldn’t see it, unless you looked very close, and then it wouldn’t have happened, but you could feel it in the air. The kitchen grew warmer in a way that didn’t have anything to do with temperature.
Potatoes. A bit of salt and some dill. Fish. Butter. Another pinch of salt. Black pepper.
He wasn’t a bad cook, and he enjoyed the act of cooking. Simple. Uncomplicated. Rewarding. It had been a long time since he cooked for anyone else. Would she like it?
Would she even eat?
– – –
Pall set down a plate in front of Kala on the table. Fish and potatoes. Simple fare, but filling. Do a body good.
He returned to the stove and scooped up a big helping on his own plate. He wasn’t sure how much Kala would eat. Barely half his size – if that – how much food would she need. There was more though, if she wanted.
Behind him, a chair scratched against the floor. He paused for a moment and then forced himself to keep moving again as if nothing had happened.
“You can start without me,” he said over his shoulder and put another potato on his plate.
Just act like everything’s normal.
Easier said than done now that he’d started thinking about it. Hopefully Fannar would arrive soon.
He carried his plate over to the table and sat down. Kala had already started. Using both knife and fork to dig into her food, like some kind of fancy lady from the city. Not that Pall would let himself be discourage by polite manners. He was who he was and he ate as he wished. If she didn’t like it she could throw him out. It was he who’d done the cooking anyway.
Pall stuck to using the using the fork, like regular people did, like they’d always done as a kid at home. The fish fell apart easily, and he preferred his potatoes mashed anyway. Could have done with some breading, and perhaps lingonberries, and some more salt. A good sauce too, and a shot of vodka. Sure, and a pony to carry him home. Keep dreaming.
They ate in silence.
She seemed a little more alive now that she was moving. He kept expecting her to say something – half hoping she would, half wishing she wouldn’t.
But Kala said nothing and eventually their plates were empty.
“Do you want more?” he asked once she’d laid down her knife and fork.
For a moment, he thought he saw a spark in her eye, but it could just have been his imagination. She was gone again. Didn’t move. Didn’t look at him. Just stared straight through him, like he wasn’t even there.
– – –
A solid wall of denial. Smooth as virgin ice.
– – –
Fannar better show up soon. This wasn’t so bad, but it’d be good to be on his way. It’d take him several hours to get home. There wouldn’t be any snow any time soon, and the wind probably wouldn’t pick up too much, but he’d been here a while already, and it be a long way before he sat at his own hearth again. If he stayed away for too long the fire would go out.
Pall picked up the plates and went to do the dishes. Clean up a little. No way the girl would do it, and Fannar would just get annoyed if he left it for him to do. You didn’t want the shaman annoyed with you. The land was harsh enough as it was.
Dishes done, Pall sat down again. Waited. Fidgeted. Waited some more.
No Fannar. No steps on the veranda. No door opening. No move and no sound from the girl right across the table from him.
Might as well do something useful with the time. Better than sitting here worrying about someone who didn’t even see him.
“Do you mind if I clean my rifle?” he asked.
He waited a moment. Perhaps if he pretended to think she’d reply it’d do her some good. Respect shown and all that.
But no answer come, and once he’d waited enough, Pall got to his feet and retrieved his rifle and his backpack from the floor in the corner behind the door. He put the rifle on the table, and rummaged through the backpack for his maintenance kit.
“It’s a modified Virfnibler Mark One,” he said and sat down. “My grandfather purchased it from a drunk army sniper after the Kitesian revolution.”
That’s how the story went at least. Pall didn’t remember ever meeting either of his grandfathers, and he’d never heard of the Kitesian revolution from anyone else. That’s how the story went though, and true or not, it was still a magnificent weapon.
Almost reached him to his chest with the stock to the ground. Chunky. Heavy. Best shot from lying down, or kneeling with support. Even he couldn’t hold it still for long enough to take aim while standing up – and he was strong. No bragging. He was a big man and strong to boot. It’s not bragging when it’s true.
“Shoots straight at three hundred meters. Once felled an ice goat at that distance.”
Okay, maybe it had been closer to two hundred meters, but it was still an impressive shot considering the wind and everything.
“Filled my stores for that winter it did.” Pall opened up his maintenance kit, and looked it over to make sure all the parts were there. “The meat is real nice, but it got a bit boring after a few months, and I had to throw away the last of it.” He hadn’t even tried for another ice goat since that time, and it was four years ago now.
“The fur is so nice too.”
He’d had the homsinen couple come down to skin it for him once he’d gotten it home. They knew how to do it right, even if they were so short they couldn’t see over the corpse of the beast even when it lay on the ground.
“I couldn’t keep it, unfortunately. Had to pay off a debt to the Vargtand patriarch and the goat’s fur was just the thing for it.” He grinned and sat up a little straighter. “It’s fine though. I have another one at home. From one my dad killed, and it’s still as good as new. That’s how nice those furs are.”
It lay on top of his bed. Thick and heavy. When he slept under it he wouldn’t even notice if the fire went out even in the dead of winter. Not that he’d let it go out, but if he did he’d still be fine.
Kala stood up and left the room.
Pall’s jaw dropped.
Was it something he’d said? What had he said? He’d just let his mouth run, like some gossiping villager. What had gotten into him? He never did that.
Should he go after her?
He hadn’t heard the door out open. She was still in the house somewhere. Maybe she’d just gone to relieve herself? None of his business. She’d be back soon. The rest of the house was freezing cold and the kitchen was the only place where you could keep warm. If she took too long he’d go look for her.
With a shrug and a sigh he turned back to his rifle on the table. Take it apart. Oil and clean every part. Put it together again. Surely Fannar would be back again long before he was done.
The door open and Pall’s head snapped up.
Kala stepped back into the kitchen, carrying a slim wooden case with steel corners in a strap over her shoulder. Kind of like the box for his saxophone, only longer.
Pall frowned. He really hadn’t expected her to be playing music. This could be awkward. He swallowed, and stared down at the rifle in front of him. He’d just been about to separate the bolt mechanism from the body. If he focused on his thing, she could do whatever she wanted.
She set down the box on the table, with the clasps towards him. Did she want to show him something? Pall swallowed. He ought to be proud he got some kind of reaction out of her, but what if it was something bad?
Steeling himself he sat back in his chair, straightened up and pulled a smile to his face. He should be encouraging. He was here to help wasn’t he? The girl needed all the support she could get.
Kala stood completely still in front of him across the table. Face free of expression. Not a muscle moved. To stand any more still her heart would have to stop beating. Her eyes though. No longer completely empty. Someone on the inside looked – actually looked – at him. There was someone there.
This is important.
Kala leaned forward, undid the clasps on the case and flipped open the lid. Parts of a rifle lay before him. Each part resting in its own molded cavity to keep it from being jostled during transportation.
His face began to grow warm. This was not a saxophone.
“Skvader Modular semi-automatic,” said Kala.
Pall gasped and his jaw fell. She spoke. He closed his mouth. Opened it again but didn’t get a word out. Someone definitely looked out of those eyes now.
“Special limited edition. Scope with daylight enchant. Shoots straight at six hundred meters.” She pulled out her chair, sat down, and placed the case in her lap.
One by one she started lifting up the pieces and placing them on the table in front of her.
Pall looked her, and waited, but no more words came. The life in her eyes withdrew and hid away. Her motions became stiff and mechanic. Efficient and practiced. Her gaze focused only on the task at hand. Weapons maintenance.
The weapon didn’t look like it needed cleaning, but she did it anyway. Good habit that.
It had made her happy to show him her rifle. That was something, wasn’t it? She’d even spoken to him. That must be a good thing, right? Right?
He kept staring down at the bolt mechanism and couldn’t quite bring himself to start removing it from the body. After a while, he got up and made tea.