Winter’s Fool by Paris Crenshaw

His boots fell heavily on fog-slick stairs. The grey mist rose up from the river and clung to everything, muting the sounds of his footsteps and his labored breathing. Saeren had been climbing through the tangled, mostly vertical, maze known as Merne’s Alley for hours. He was tired, despite his frequent stops to look for signs to point him in the right direction. He’d also spent too much time looking at his feet, but it was the only way to avoid the patches of ice that crossed his path like overconfident thieves. He had lost sight of the river some time ago, but he was nowhere near the top.

Saeren didn’t know exactly where he was going, but he knew he was close. He could feel it as surely as he felt the cold gnawing on his bones. Somewhere in this shrouded jumble of bridges, ladders, and walkways, a centuries-old secret lay hidden. He could also sense the growing desperation that drove him toward its discovery.

He had spent months trying to figure out what he was looking for. Even after he learned that the “what” was actually a “who,” it had taken almost as long to find the “where”: in one of the least friendly neighborhoods of Algidheart. Irrisen was the last place Saeren wanted to be—a place he had long avoided with all his might. Unfortunately, he didn’t have an option anymore.

Lost in his reverie, Saeren almost didn’t notice the two figures stepping out of a side alley to block his way. The whispered warning came to him just in time. Both figures wore heavy furs with hoods that covered most of their faces. They looked human, at least. Of course, this was Irrisen. Looks could be deceiving. Pulling up short, he raised his eyes to meet those of the closest man.

“Aengour Frei, Skeunner.” The man spat out the old Skald solstice greeting. He had also used the Irrisen slur for “stranger.” This was not a jovial holiday wish.

“And to you.” Saeren hadn’t spoken Skald in years, but his mouth instantly formed the words as if he’d lived in Irrisen all his life. He kept his tone friendly. His eyes told them he was not afraid. “Can I help you with something? The Long Night will soon be upon us. I’m bringing a gift to an old friend.”

The men were taken aback by Saeren’s familiarity with the language. For a moment, he dared hope the thugs would just let him pass. He didn’t need any delays. Unfortunately, the mention of a gift was too much for the ruffians to ignore. Saeren chided himself for not coming up with a better lie.

“Why don’t you tell us where your friend lives? We can deliver that gift for you so you can go back where you came from.”

The silent one in the back shifted his weight and moved his arm. Saeren knew he was reaching for a weapon even before the warning came.

Even working together, these toughs weren’t going to pose a serious threat, but Saeren didn’t want to fight them here. Stealing a glance at the surrounding buildings to see if anyone was watching, he spied the overhang of a platform several feet away. He was fairly certain he could make the jump and pull himself out of reach before they could react.

Even as the escape plan formed in Saeren’s mind, his left hand shot out—unbidden—and grabbed the man’s coat. He tried to let go, but his fingers wouldn’t obey him. Saeren looked up to meet the thief’s gaze.

What the man saw in Saeren’s eyes caused his already pale face to take on an ashen hue. The other man must have seen it, too. Instead of moving to defend his companion, he took a half-step backward.

The air grew cold, even for Irrisen in winter. The fog around them turned to ice and fell like fine sand onto the wooden platform. The thief struggled in Saeren’s grip for only a moment.

When Saeren let go, the thief fell to the floor, where his frozen body shattered into dozens of pieces. The other thug tried to turn and run, but he slipped on the ice and fell on his face. Saeren’s hand moved like lightning and grabbed his ankle. His lungs were frozen before he could start screaming.

When it was over, Saeran tossed the icy remains into the river below. He resumed his climb up through the alley. He stomped hard on each step. Steam began to rise from his skin as the exertion heated his body. It didn’t take long before the familiar, sultry voice slid back into his mind.

Why are you so angry, Saeren? They were trying to rob you. I was only helping. She fell into the twittering, mocking laughter with which she so often tormented him.

You know damn well why I’m angry. You used me. Besides, someone could have seen us…seen me. Saeren muttered a curse at himself. He had to stop thinking of them as being together.

But we are together, Saeren. We’ve been together since the day we met. I helped you then, didn’t I? I just helped you again. And if you’ll take us both just a bit farther, you can return those favors. Once you’ve done this one little thing for me, you won’t have to worry about having me around anymore.

Fine. Saeren had to admit he was almost as anxious for this to end as she was. Let’s get going.

By the time he found the place, the daylight—or what passed for daylight this far north—was nearly gone. Saeren had suspected he would recognize the place when he saw it, but he was surprised at just how obvious it was when he finally did. Of course, when one knows what to look for, signs are easy to read.

The house was situated precariously on the edge of Merne’s Alley, stubbornly defying gravity. The building lacked anything resembling good taste. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be covered in a bewildering array of ornaments, everything from bunches of dried flowers to artistic designs carved directly into the walls. Saeren knew, however, that the owner was not the least bit interested in decor. Everything around that house was devoted to warding against unwanted visitors—and a very specific kind of visitor, at that. As he approached the house, Saeren thought he felt the presence in his mind squirm a little.

Saeren knocked on the door. He waited for several moments before he heard the sound of footsteps, followed by the tinkling of what he suspected were silver bells. The resident must have had a gremlin problem, as well. A metal plate slid open to uncover a small hole in the door, which Saeren could see was lined with lead and etched with arcane symbols of protection. A sparkling, green eye peered through the hole.

“What do you want?” The voice was that of an old man. Saeren was glad to hear him speaking the Common tongue. He was doubly glad to hear the man’s obvious Taldan accent.

“My name is Saeren. I seek the help of Hellbinder Voreas.”

“Oh? And what makes you think this Voreas is here? Or that he would want to help the likes of you?”

“Because I bring news he’ll want to hear. Something I would much rather discuss inside, if you’d be so kind as to let me in.” Saeren was starting to feel the chill of the Irrisen night air settle into him, and he was running low on patience. “Or would you rather let me freeze to death on your doorstep on the night of the Winter Solstice.”

The eye on the other side of the door narrowed. “State your business. Then we’ll see if Voreas wants to see you…or let you freeze to death.”

Saeren’s exasperated sigh was a white plume as his breath joined the fog hanging in the frigid air. “Very well. Tell Voreas that the White Witch, Talithia, has escaped her prison in the south.”

Saeren didn’t know what he found more satisfying—the sound of chiming bells as the man fell back from the door in shock or the rush of warm air that greeted him when the door swung open. But his smug grin faded quickly when he saw the look on the old man’s face. A different kind of chill ran through Saeren in that moment—one that only grew deeper when he heard the rich, throaty laughter bubbling up from the back of his mind.

 (featured in Wayfinder, Vol. 2)