((With apologies to Craig Thompson for blatantly ripping off the title))
It is surprising that after thousands of years of evolution, elves have very little defense against the cold. I can feel my cheeks are chapped, the long cartilage of my ears are numb, along with my nose. There’s ice in my goatee and eyelashes, crystals forming with every heaved, wet breath I manage to shake out. My lungs feel collapsed, sucking the shockingly cold air through what feels like a straw as the scar in my windpipe stretches tight across my throat like a thin vice. The only thing reminding me I’m alive is the pain in my chest, aching and hollow.
I’ve fallen to one knee in the snow against the enormous gust of freezing wind before I realize my frozen ankle gave out. I push my stinging fingers into the snow, struggling back to my feet, and my heavy leather cloak is pulled back, flapping with the loud protests of wet leather as the wind plays at it. I reach for the clasp with a fumbling hand, choking on the heavy cinch pulling against my neck. The metal is frigid against my neck, widening my eyes and sending the sensation of cold burns against my skin.
The wind shifts and my cloak falls, smacking against the back of my legs with a sting. Not for the first time… I think of turning back, following the icy road I’m quickly losing track of with the fresh blanket of snow back to the White Hart. It’s only been a few miles fighting against the blizzard and already I know I’m losing the battle.
But I won’t do it. My anger flares up fresh in my chest, sparking a few more wobbled footsteps forward. I won’t drag myself back to a woman… that woman… frozen and defeated.
She’s worth dying over… Tylien.
I think of her, my anger meshing into something else, as slushy and mixed as the snow under my boots. She must be tucked under thick blankets by now, a cup of forgotten tea and her Orcish Common primer on the nightstand, a warm fire in the hearth as she listened to that harpy mage of a friend warn her against me from the bed I should have been sleeping in. The bed Tylien offered her… instead of me.
“Come back inside, Iloam,” Tylien had insisted through chattering teeth, wrapping my old cloak around her small frame as we stood outside the door of the lodge.
“I haven’t got a room,” I’d accused her and her eyes had widened, her pretty mouth forming a soft ‘oh’ of surprise.
I shouldn’t have been surprised she’d already run back to her loving mate, forgetting me within hours of our departure. I knew I was nothing more than a distraction; the whimsical foray of a noble-blood girl delving into the dark side. I’d been stupid to hope for just one more night in her forgiving arms. So I took it out on her, leaving her a few bruises to remind her why good little girls shouldn’t play with things they don’t understand. My eyes squint against the flurries, trying to cry as pain wells in my chest thinking of how I’d had to touch her that way, but my tear ducts are frozen shut.
I’m telling the stars it was for the best. They laugh at me. It was…. it was….
I wake with half my face in the snow, unable to feel most of my body. I manage to feel something jostling my shoulder. There are voices: a man and a woman, both thick with accents – it takes my frozen mind a few minutes to slog awake and realize its Dwarvish. I crack open my eye that isn’t buried in several inches of snow.
“Och! He’s alive!” My vision swims, unable to focus on the two faces peering at me. I think the male moves closer, poking my chest roughly and I try to give a warning growl. I don’t know if the sound is only in my head.
“Iloam, this isn’t going to help you get clean,” she’d smirked as I’d pulled at her wrist. Her small feet had dipped in on either side of my hips and she’d settled over me with a sigh. Pink-tinted water slopped over the edges of the tub basin, soaking the floor of our rented room – our haven, away from the farthest reaches of our lives.
She’d wiped blood from the stubble of my cheek as I’d wrapped my arms around her, buried deep in her heat. “I certainly hope not,” I’d grinned.
I wake up again as the caravan lurches, sliding sideways against the icy roads. I hear a string of Dwarvish curses from somewhere above my head, muffled and distant. I appear to be covered in blankets that smell like pipeweed, staring up at the sagging roof of a covered wagon – pots and pans dangle precariously from the beams, clanging in protest. I manage to turn my head – my neck is stiff and my face still feels taut with icy burns. Two little children peer back at me with wide, curious blue eyes in their disproportionately large heads. The little boy is holding my cloak, the folds of leather engulfing both of their legs as we jostle along in the blizzard.
“Are you an elf?” he asks me, conspiratorially, his small fingers playing at the ornate silver clasp of the cloak.
I try to retort, but my lips refuse to form words and my voice feels like the inside of an icebox. His mother’s hand appears through the front of the caravan, rebuffing the child before her head appears.
“Tsk, let ‘im sleep!” My eye’s roll towards the top of my vision, trying to put a face with the Commoner’s tongue. She’s looking at me with uncertain compassion. “Light knows ‘e needs it.”
I let my head fall back again when the children quiet, rocked into an idle rest by the sway of the caravan. I’d caught Tylien looking at me that way more than once. My eyes close and I can see her face so clearly.
We’d fought. She had touched my hex mark as I slept and opened… something terrible, some sort of portal. There hadn’t been time to explain as I prepared a warding, knowing my mum would send demons to collect her within minutes. She’d yelled and begged for explanations and when it was over, I’d held her as she felt afraid. It was easier than I’d thought it would be… to hold her. I had remembered what it had been like to comfort Keiran when we were lads.
“Who was that woman?” she asked quietly against my neck.
“That was my mu---an evil woman.”
Her head snapped up in surprise. “Were you going to say your mum?”
I nodded and she shook her head in horror, the same look of uncertain compassion softening her eyes. “Tylien,” I growled her name like a warning, and it crumpled from her features.
I didn’t want her pity – I don’t want anyone’s. But she’ll never know it was more than that. I craved her redemption, in my own stupid way, and every time she pressed against my denial it only reminded me of exactly how bloody foolish I was being.
She made it easy to be. Things were perfect when we lied to each other.
There’s tea brewing when I wake up, my legs folded over the too-small bed. I’m once again piled under blankets, stuffed into a small little cottage. There’s snow on the window pane above my head, but the fire roaring in the stove near me creates pleasant warmth. I sit up and rub my tingling fingers against my eyes, dusting the quilts with sleep faeries.
“Where am I?” I ask, using Common, as the Dwarf woman sits on the bedside and hands me a cup of hot tea. I crush the stab of pain in my chest – Tylien made me tea and toast every morning – and accept it.
The woman glances at my hands with worry, giving a slight tsk at the children that are half-hiding behind bowls of porridge at the table. They shirk back out of my sight when she does, only little hands with large spoons visible behind their breakfasts. She turns back to me and smiles. “Jus’ a stones t’ro from Everlook, laddie. Drink up.”
She tips the cup as I press it to my lips and I give her an angry look. She just laughs at me. This stuff tastes like ground up grass. That a hawkstrider pissed in.
I sputter, turning my face and coughing. “Tastes bloody awful!”
“Aye. Had ta put a bit of remedies in it fer yer frostbite.” She scowls at me with a smile playing at her lips. She’s babying me. “Finish it off now.”
Frankly I’d rather finish her off, but I suppose I do owe the family something for taking in a stranger frozen on the side of the road. I’m sniffling and wiping my nose with the back of my hand when I notice her staring at it again. I close my fist quietly and put the teacup back on the saucer she’s holding expectantly.
“What ‘appened there?” she nods to my missing middle fingers.
“Forge accident,” I lie easily, having used that one before. She accepts it as easily as most, with a sigh of relief.
“Aye, shame tha’. So yer a smithy, then?” She smiles warmly now, easing into conversation with unfortunate crippled man. I oblige the fantasy, giving her charming smiles back.
“A jeweler, actually. I deal mostly with antiques,” I tell her, and that one’s not even a lie. There’s a small commotion as the male comes home, letting in a draft that sends the children into squeals of terror in their cotton pajamas. They run towards him for hugs and he lefts a stout arm in a wave towards the woman. He eyes me cautiously and I give him my most pitiful, innocent face as he hangs his musket over the door.
“What’s an antique jewler doin’ all tha way up ‘ere in Winterspring? I cannae think tha’ there’s many buyers in Everlook. Travelin’ town mostly, innit?” She pries.
“No, not many. I’m not here on business,” I say, repressing a yawn. The heat of the blankets its starting to feel heavy and comforting, filling my head with gauzey sleep.
She presses her fat little hand against my cheeks and clucks at my temperature. “Pleasure then?”
I scoff, rolling my eyes towards the snow-filled window above the bed. Tylien’s probably already left, back to her life and gone from the black mistake that was Iloam Blacksong. I realize I’m scowling when I say, “Not pleasure, either.”
She gives me a knowing look. “A lass, then. I knew yeh had a melancholy about yeh.” She gets up, moving to the teapot ontop of the cast iron stove. “This calls fer more tea, aye?”
I remember Tylien’s earrings, settled at the bottom of the teapot she held in her lap, our blood mixed in the water to make the ward of protection. She’d looked so bloody scared. I’d done that to her.
I lean my head back against the tiny bedframe, watching the window well fill with even more flakes of pristine white snow. My eyelids fall together, heavier than just a fever, and I force myself to try to forget Tylien Sunstorm like she’s forgotten me.
“Put some whiskey in it, will you, Crumpet?”