Framed In Blood
But in the end no one knew what the weather would be like the following day. There was no reception in Lurensborg either, and Fannar was not to be found.
Like Vissla had said, it wouldn’t much matter anyway. The wind would blow as the wind wished and that was that. Not much you could do about it except be prepared.
In the end, the weather behaved. Snow fell through the night, but when dawn finally broke, the wind died down. And then the snow stopped falling, and the clouds dispersed. A tired sun climbed up over the mountains and shone down on the little village at the mouth of the bay.
The villagers had their ceremony, and it went well, after a fashion. At least, the flames didn’t go out, and wasn’t that the main thing really? Right? It was bad enough people hadn’t come back from the sea. If their flames had gone out, you might as well have made hole in the ice to join them.
That’s what they told each other afterwards – after they’d talked about that other thing.
– – –
And talk they did. Let’s head over to the train station on the evening after the ceremony and have a peek. The arrivals hall at the station doesn’t have a coffee machine, but it holds more people, and station master Hulda always keeps with hot water if you bring your own tea and mug. It’s a good place to meet for a chat after the post office closes at three.
A large room. Calling it a hall is a bit of a stretch, but it’s still got the highest ceiling in the village. Benches along the walls. Square wooden tables on the floor. A large bulletin board on the right wall and a fireplace in the left. There’s even a television screen above the door to the platform for showing arrivals and departures, but it’s been unplugged.
Sure, it’s against regulation to turn off the display, but so is keeping tables on the floor, and it’s not like there’s going to be any unscheduled inspections until spring anyway – or trains.
– – –
Otto stroked his beard and stared down into his mug of tea. “I still can’t believe she did that,” he said for the umpteenth time. “She can’t be right in the head.”
Beside him, Harald chuckled. “Well, not now she isn’t.”
“Hey!” Otto scowled at him. “That’s not right.”
“It’s not wrong either.” Harald crossed his arms over his chest and glared a challenge at his brother.
The two men stared at each other in silence. Rough men. Hard men. Worn by salt and wind after decades on the sea. Born and bred here. Big hands. Bushy beards.
After a moment Otto lowered his gaze and sighed. “I’m just saying it’s not right to joke about it. It’s a bad thing she did.”
Harald snatched up his mug and drank. “Stupid right it’s a bad thing. What you gonna do about it?”
“I still can’t believe she did it. I never seen anyone bleed that much.”
“Then you ain’t seen half as much as I thought you had, brother.”
“Person!” Otto slammed his fist into the table. “I never seen a person bleed like that. Okay?”
“Calm down brother. People are staring.”
“Don’t brother me! And it’s your fault for pissing me off. You’re out of line and it’s not right.”
Otto hunched up his shoulders and crossed his arms over his chest. Let them stare. It wasn’t him being disrespectful to the poor girl. To the whole village really. You didn’t joke about these things. Mother wouldn’t have approved.
“I’m out of line?” Harald gaped and threw his arms wide. “I’ll tell you what’s out of line brother. It’s cutting your own stupid ear off! It’s tossing your bleeding ear on your dead boyfriend’s memorial flame in front of the whole stupid village.” He straightened up and held his head high. “That, my brother, that is out of line.”
“Gentlemen, what’s going on here?” Hulda stood beside them, looking from one to the other and back again. “There’s no trouble is there?”
Big woman. Tall. Broad of hip and shoulder. Neck as a bull. Short black hair, and little silver spikes through her ears. Not from here. Assigned station master duty by the Department of Railroads. Probably did something bad somewhere.
“Ah, no.” Otto paused to clear his throat. “Just talking.”
Harald squirmed and coughed into his fist. “Yes. Exactly. Just talking.”
Neither of the men looked up at her. They probably blushed, but she couldn’t quite tell under the beards.
“Good lads.” Hulda pulled on her best school teacher smile and beamed down at them. “Just keep it down will you. The acoustics you know. It gets so noise with this many people in here.” She gestured towards the ceiling high above and let her smile turn more friendly. “More hot water?”
Sure, the brothers were loud, but they weren’t the only ones on edge this evening. What Kala did had unsettled everyone. As Hulda walked among the tables of her station she heard them all talk about it.
Hushed whispers. Angry grumbles. The voices changed but the questions remained the same. What did it mean? Why had she done it? Was she okay? What would she do next? What did it mean?
Round and round. All questions. No answers.
She wished Fannar had been there. The shaman would have known what to do. He could have calmed the villagers, told them it would be fine. He was authority.
She was just the station master. A useless position no one had any need for here in the arse end of nowhere. Even the postmaster was more important than her. At least he could make coffee.
The villagers kept coming though, and as long as they did, she’d have a kettle of hot water on for them. As long as they did, she’d keep smiling and telling them to mind their manners, like it mattered more than whatever else went on out there in the cold and snow – bleeding ears and drowned families and all the other horrible things that went on out there in the dark.
Just a few more months. Just this one winter. Come spring she’d be able to to go home again.
Hulda’s head snapped up. A whisper in the din. Her mind had wandered off. Someone was trying to get her attention. Craning her neck she scanned the crowd to see who’d been calling.
“Here. Hulda,” the whisper came again.
There. Over by the bulletin board. Vissla. Huddled up on one of the benches by the wall. When had she come in?
Hulda raised her free hand and waved.
She should have noticed. Vissla had been looking after Kala hadn’t she? She and Gulli. Stealthy old hag must have snuck in without anyone noticing. Probably used the back entrance through the deliveries room. She’d asked her not to do that.
Then again, day like this. She’d let it slide.
Pulling the smile back to her face she raised the kettle and rattled it a little to show it was nearly empty. She held up one finger towards Vissla and nodded.
Vissla nodded in return, sighed, and let her head fall back against the wall. She liked having a wall behind her. It felt good. Safe – and right now she needed that.
That, and to be among people for a bit. Normal sane people.
She’d finally gotten the girl’s blood off her hands. Her clothes were a different matter, but that could wait. Coming in through the back door meant she could hang her parka on one of the pegs in the store room. No one would see it there.
Vissla opened her eyes. She’d only closed them for a moment. Hulda towered over her. Her fake pleasant smile plastered to her face tighter than ever. Perhaps it had been a mistake coming here.
Mug. She needed her mug. Fumbling with the carabiners at her belt she unhooked the mug and set it down on the little table in front of her. Dented old tin mug with its handle wrapped in leather.
“You okay?” Hulda leaned down and filled the cup with hot water.
Vissla nodded. She’d be fine. Just needed to sit down for a bit. Have some tea. Have some people around her.
“The girl’s asleep,” she said after a moment. “We stopped the bleeding. Gulli’s with her.”
“Good.” Hulda straightened up again, perhaps with a little less tension in her eyes. “You want something with the tea?” Her hand went for the pouch she wore strapped around her waist. “Help you relax.”
For a moment she considered it, and then she shook her head. Today was not a good day. “Thanks,” she said. “Save it for someone else.”