A Tale Told in Winter
On a wooden bench by the hearth sat an old man sipping a flagon of spiced ale. Around him tongues wagged in conversation and gossip, and the walls resonated with raucous laughter. Pretty serving wenches passed by him, supplying the inn’s patrons with drink and food while avoiding their groping hands.
The old man drank in this inn each night, arriving there for the first time at the beginning of the town’s winter season. Initially overlooked as a stranger, he eventually settled in as a familiar sight, slowly consuming one flagon of ale by the fire before leaving. Regulars to the inn knew him as Sarc and gave him a friendly nod, with a few exchanging a brief word of greeting. Most thought him harmless and lonely, but none knew the reason he came to the inn. Yet, every night he came, and every night he waited.
Tonight, as Sarc sat and imbibed his ale, a man stumbled into the inn, seeking warmth from the icy wind and blowing winter outside the door. He shook the snow from his cloak and then, by chance or design, he joined Sarc on his bench by the fireplace.
The man nodded to Sarc as he took a seat. “Good Eve to you, sir. Nothing like a warm fire on such cold night.” He held out his hand. “I’m Kalad.”
The old man met his outstretched hand with his own firm grip. “I am Sarc.” The old man tilted his head. “I see you have a Misthri emblem on your cloak. Do you hail from the city?”
“Yes, I lived in that city for a time, but no longer.”
“If I might ask, what brings you away from Misthri’s walls?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I left because of circumstances, and a sudden urge to travel.”
“Ah, the wanderlust. I know it well. I too, am on a journey of sorts. But still, it must have been difficult to leave Misthri. It is such a beautiful city, with so much creative brilliance.”
“Yes, yes, it’s the great celebrated City of Inspiration, home to storytellers and artists. Sing its praises, it’s the Blessed City of Shrines, guarded by the spirits. I’m familiar with all the official dogma. But, there’s more to Misthri than that, old man, much more.” Kalad chuckled. “I could tell you stories of that city, stories that you won’t hear from any approved Misthri chronicler.”
“Don’t be so certain. I know many strange tales from the city of Misthri. There is one in particular I think you would find interesting. Would you like to hear it?”
Kalad smiled. “Why not? I’ll indulge your whim, old man. Tell me your tale.”
Sarc gave Kalad a smile of his own, tinged slightly with a sad air. “This tale begins on a winter’s night much like this one. A vagabond from the streets of Misthri was caught out in a fierce storm. He took shelter in one of the Misthri shrines, welcomed according to custom by the three priestesses of the hallowed place.” Sarc paused, as he saw the face of Kalad pale in colour and then continued.
“Now this man meant no harm in his original intent, just sought a warm bed for the night, out of the cold and snow. But he had a dishonest heart and it whispered to him in the darkness. He tried to resist, but he gave in to his temptation near morning and crept from his bed. In the last remaining hours of night, this man slew the three mystics of the shrine and stole their gold and silver, coin meant for the poor of the city. Then this wicked man fled the city and vanished into the winter snows.”
Sarc stopped talking and watched Kalad tremble. “Is something wrong, Kalad?”
“Your story- how did you know? No one knew, no one saw me that night.”
“Oh, Kalad. You were in the spirit shrine of Lumin, Light of Winter. She was there that night. Did you think you could escape her retribution? You stole from her, murdered her people. She is coming for you, Kalad, coming tonight.”
The old man laughed and the air around him shimmered and grew cold. Kalad shivered. The old man laughed again as Kalad’s lips turned a faint blue and his breathing became laboured.
Kalad reached out his hand. “Help me...”
“Poor, Kalad. There is no help for you.”
Sarc’s cackle echoed through the inn and every person in the place watched him disappear before their eyes. Amid the screams and gasps, the front door swung open with a blast of icy wind.
In the doorway stood a woman dressed in a flowing white cloak and a silver dress. She had ashen hair and skin, with piercing blue eyes. She raised her hand to point at Kalad, who looked at her and screamed.
She slowly smiled, her face alight in satisfaction. “Hello, Kalad, you thief and murderer. You are mine at last.” She lifted her hand and blew him a glacial kiss.
For a moment Kalad froze in time, Lumin’s breath wafting through him. Then he clutched at his chest, keeled over and died, his heart wrapped in her bitter frost.
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