Take A Picture
The brothers came back the following day. Safe and sound, but happy to be back. Those Morskebo folk, they’re a weird bunch. Good honest folk, but not like here in Lurstrand. It’s them living on the wrong side of the bay that does it you know. Can’t be right that. You gotta have the sun setting in the sea at summer, not behind some big mountain hiding your sunset away. It ain’t right.
Days pass. A week maybe – something like that.
The sun doesn’t rise anymore. For a few hours around lunch the sky turns a pale grey and then it’s dark again. Sometime the northern lights fill the skies with dancing flames, and the hearts of the villagers with wonder. Mostly it snows.
In the village, things are getting better.
Kala’s nightmares are gone. She sleeps at night. She doesn’t stay in bed all day. That’s about it. It’s an improvement, right?
Sure she just sits at the table and stares out the window. She doesn’t eat unless you put food in front of her and even then you have to sit there and watch her until it’s gone.
But at least she doesn’t wake up screaming anymore.
Poor Vissla. It was driving her nuts that. They can leave the girl alone at night now.
See, it’s getting better.
Of course, it’s winter in a small village on the northern coast. It’s cold and dark and miserable. You won’t see the sun for months, but sure, it’s getting better.
Let’s check in at the train station again. That Hulda, she’s not even from here. Well, neither is Ralphur, but at least he’s been here a while.
– – –
Hulda put another log on the fire. Sure, maybe it was wasteful of her, but for some reason she felt colder than usual this morning. Morning. The only thing telling her it was morning was the clock on the wall and the fact the arrivals hall was empty. Might as well be midnight for all that looking out the window would do.
Nothing to do. No one to serve. No reason to be up and awake except regulation demanded the station be open from whatever stupid o’clock in the morning. Not like anyone would drop by before lunch anyway.
Maybe she’d sing for a bit. The hall did have nice acoustics. If she’d been at her old job she’d have done it. Back then she’d always used to sing, whether she was alone or not. Up here, not so much.
Hulda sighed and held her hands out to the flames to warm them. She’d sing to the sun when spring came.
Behind her, the outer door of the arrivals hall creaked open. Boots stomped against the floor, and a moment later the inner doors opened and someone stepped in.
Groaning, Hulda pushed herself to her feet. She walked over to the little table and flipped the switch on the electric kettle. Might as well get it going. She still hadn’t bothered working out how to heat water over the fire. Probably should.
“Grab a seat. I’ll be there in a moment,” she shouted over her shoulder without really looking.
Whoever had come in pulled out a chair and sat down.
The power had kept up all through the winter last year and she had a few spare kettles in the back room. If the power went out, hot water would be the least of her problems. Then again, she’d probably just sit her by the fire and wait until someone came to save her.
Probably Vissla – or maybe the brothers. Hulda grimaced. They’d sure like that. Good thing they were’t clever enough to figure out how to shut off the power.
Someone set their cup down on the table with a light clatter.
A moment later the kettle clicked, signifying the water was hot enough.
Hulda sighed, and pulled a smile to her face. Once it was on, it wouldn’t come off until she closed for the day, and who knew when that would be. Hopefully not too late.
Time to work.
“I’m coming,” she said, and turned around.
A tall man sat at the table by the door. First chair available. As close to the exit as you could get. Long black hair. A few days stubble. Broad shoulders, thick arms, brown skin tough as leather.
Hulda stopped for an instant. Pall. She hadn’t seen him for ages. Her smile growing wider all by itself she walked over to where he sat.
He’d put his backpack on the floor next to him and leaned his rifle against the chair beside him – just within reach. A small axe hung in thong from his belt
“Pall,” she said. “I didn’t expect you this morning. What brings you here? And so early too? Water? You must have been walking all night?”
Without waiting for an answer she leaned over the table and filled his mug up. “Did you bring your own tea?”
She straightened up and waved towards the door to the station master’s office behind her. “I have some of my own to spare if you want?”
And then her cheeks turned bright red. What was she doing? Offering up her own tea like this first thing in the morning? He hadn’t even said hello yet, and she just kept bombarding him with questions and he wasn’t the talkative type was he and he hadn’t even opened his mouth had he? Really girl, get your act together.
“Thank you,” said Pall. “I’ve got my own.” He nodded at a little pouch next to the mug on the table.
“Oh, right…” Hulda’s face fell. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see.” She stammered, and her face grew even redder.
Hulda pulled out the chair next to her and then stopped herself and a frown appeard on her face. No one ordered her around in her hall. “I’ll get my mug.”
Back straight and head high she strolled over to the table with the kettle and swept up her mug with a swing of her arm. She paused for a moment and then darted into her office and snagged a tea bag from her own personal stash.
People usually shared theirs with her, but hers was better. Smelled better too. Her mother had sent her a batch to last her the winter just a few weeks ago.
Eventually, after doing another little detour by the fireplace to make sure it’d last a while – she knew it would – she sauntered over to where Pall sat by the door.
“So, Pall,” she said as she poured hot water into her cup. “What brings you here? Tell me.”
“Is Vissla around?”
Hulda sighed. No one ever told her anything. “You came all the way down here just to see her? Don’t you live up in the mountains somewhere?”
“Yes.” Pall sipped his tea.
“Yes?” She raised an eyebrow at him. There was being not talkative, but this was just silly.
“Is she around?” He sat down his cup and looked straight at her.
“Yes.” Hulda stared back. She could play that game too.
Pall nodded. “Good.”
The silence dragged out. The fire crackled on its hearth, and now and then a gust of wind buffed against the building. A low whine in the dark morning.
She hadn’t covered up the windows yet. She ought to, but she couldn’t do it on her own. The brothers would help. Anyone would help probably, if she just asked, but it was the brothers you asked first. They didn’t have anything else to do now the fishing season was over. Just helped people.
It was kind of nice to see the light shining out the windows, wasn’t it? She thought so. Made you feel welcome.
“She at her place?” Pall said.
Hulda, shook her head. “No, she’s with Kala now I think, but she’ll probably stop by later.” And then she remembered herself, crossed her arms over her chest and pressed her lips together. “No! I mean, no.”
For a moment he stared at her, eyes growing darker, and then, when she though she couldn’t keep it together anymore, his face cracked up in a big grin.
Her heart beat like a drum and if she smiled any wider her cheeks would rip.
“Good,” he said, still grinning. “You learn.”
Hulda pressed her lips together, and put on her best disapproving frown. “No!” Then she relaxed back into her chair, sipped her tea, and enjoyed that warm feeling in her stomach that came only partly from the tea.
Pall raised his cup in salute, but sat it down again without drinking. “Kala…” He rubbed at his chin and gazed up into the ceiling. Thick black stubble. “That’s the witch right?”
“Witch?” Hulda frowned.
“Yes, yes. Magic weaver. Whatever. You know what I mean.” Pall sighed and rolled his eye. “It’s her, right?”
“Yes.” She closed her eyes and groaned inwardly. Of course he hadn’t heard. He probably hadn’t spoken to another human being since he was here last, and that was over a month ago – way before all this.
“Yes,” Hulda said again. “That’s her… She’s just a normal girl now though. Except she’s crazy.” She paused and cleared her throat. “You haven’t heard anything, right?”
Pall shook his head, his brow in furrows and his eyes serious. “Something happened to Agnar?”
“Last day of Autumn.” Hulda took a deep breath. “One of the boats didn’t come back.”
“Oh…” Pall’s face drained of color. “I didn’t know. Agnar was on that?”
Hulda nodded. “Agnar. Svana. Leifur.” It was easy keeping her face straight now. “Her boyfriend and her entire family… Just gone.”
Pall said nothing. His eyes closed, and his hand on the table clenched into a fist. His breathing slowed, and Hulda watched in silence as his chest rose and fell. Rose, and fell.
His fist slammed into the table so hard the mugs jumped.
Eyes wide Hulda stared at him. Please don’t break anything.
“I’m sorry Pall,” she stammered. “I didn’t know you knew them.”
Pall only grunted in reply. He tugged at his sleeve and used it to wipe at the table. Some tea had spilled from his cup.
Hulda swallowed. What if he got violent? She didn’t know the big man nearly as well as she thought. Stupid. That shouldn’t have to come as a surprise. She’d only met him a handful of times. Lived in a cabin somewhere up in the mountains. Only came down once in a while to stock up on pipe weed and batteries. Spent most of his time hunting.
He probably slept on bear skin furs in front of the fireplace. A real man of the wilds.
“It’s okay. I’ll get it.” She half rose from her chair and pulled a rag from its hoop at her waist. “Shoo.”
Supporting herself on the table with one hand she leaned over to his side and wiped up the rest of the tea with the rag. Not that there was much left, but it was a distraction – forced him to move out of the way and pay attention to something else.
“I’m sorry,” he said when she was down and had sat down again. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay.” Hulda reached for the kettle and filled his mug up. “It’s been tough for everyone.”
Pall nodded. “Thanks.” For a moment he just stared at the cup, and then he squirmed and lowered his gaze. “Crazy you said. Kala?”
Hulda nodded. She didn’t know Kala very well, even though the girl was just a few years younger than she. They knew each other of course, but Kala had spent most of her time with her boyfriend, practicing their magic or just, well, you know – Kala hadn’t been a frequent visitor to the station.
She didn’t even know what kind of tea the girl liked.
“Indeed,” she said. “It’s sad really. They say she’s getting better, but I just don’t know.”
“She used to just lie in bed and scream all day, but she’s stopped that now and she actually gets up in the morning.” Hulda grimaced. “Still doesn’t eat unless you feed her though.”
She sipped her tea. Drawing it out a little, making him wait.
And wait he did. Said nothing – just watched her from across the table.
“I know that doesn’t sound too bad, but I spoke to Vissla last night. No one else knows about this yet. The girl’s gone completely insane now.”
Again, not a word. Barely a nod.
Hulda shifted in her seat. “Apparently, she’s moved her bed and all of the furniture into the living room in front of the fireplace. Put the bed in the middle and used chairs and tables to build a wall around herself.”
“What?” Pall frowned.
“And that’s not even the end of it.” She leaned forward over the table and lowered her voice. “She found a family photo album and started putting up pictures on the walls. Pictures of her mom over her father’s bed. Things like that.”
She paused, and swallowed. “Even Vissla thought it was a bit creepy,” she whispered.
The woman would kill her if she found out she’d said that.
Pall closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His jaw set, and he turned his head away. Again, those long slow breaths.
She tried not to think about it.
Hulda looked away too. Sipped her tea. It didn’t quite taste as good as it usually did. Had she said too much? Misjudged? She probably shouldn’t bring up the thing with the ear. How well did he know Kala, or Agnar? The others?
Just because he lived alone on his own didn’t have to mean he didn’t know and care about people in the village. Maybe they were his relatives or something?
Pall let out a long slow breath, and then he shrugged and sat up a little straighter. “I guess she won’t be going to Gammalsborg then.”
“Huh?” Hulda’s eyebrows went up.
“She wanted to go to Gammalsborg and study magic at the university with Agnar,” he said. “I guess that won’t happen now.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.” She hadn’t heard anything. Someone would have said something.
“Oh…” Pall squirmed. “I didn’t realize… She told me this summer. I didn’t know it was a secret.” He shrugged and coughed into his fist. “Please don’t tell anyone.”
“Of course not.” Hulda frowned. Who did he take her for? “I don’t spill to just anyone.”
Pall raised an eyebrow and something like a smile tugged at his lip. “Of course not…”
Realization dawned on her and her cheeks burned with heat. She clenched her fists under the table to keep from hiding her face in her hands. Stupid girl. She’d made enough of a fool of herself already.
“You’re different,” she stammered, and her face grew even warmer. Stupid. “I mean… You don’t live here.”
Hulda stopped herself. Swallowed. Took a deep breath. Nice and calm now. She clasped her hands in her lap and straightened her back. “You don’t go gossiping to the villagers first chance you get.” She swallowed again. “That’s what I mean.”
“Don’t worry Hulda. You’re a good girl. I get it.” He stretched, and shifted in his seat. “I still need to find Vissla though. You said she’d be with Kala?”
“Yes. I think so.”
Pall nodded and got to his feet. He gathered up his things – backpack, rifle, mug – and made for the door. He paused for a moment, and then without a glance back he pulled open the door and left.
Hulda sighed, and her shoulders slumped. So much for that. Fool of a girl she was. Well, at least the morning had passed a little faster than normal. She scrunched up her face. Massaged her jaw. Time to get the smile in place again.
Then the door pushed open once more and Pall stuck in his head.
“Uhm, Hulda…” he said, and then a long pause. “I might be back later, and… I mean… If you.” He paused again, grimaced, and tried to force something like a smile to his face. “Your tea smelled a lot better than mine. Okay?”
And then he pulled his head back and dragged the door shut and an instant later the outer door opened and shut as well.