In the deepest depths and darkest lands the shadows stalk their prey. Just one missed step will seal your fate and send you on your way. So stick unto the path of light and the lords will bless your journey. But if you listen to the demons lies you will suffer for all eternity. – Musings of the Travelling bard. 50:BL
Kim’s eyebrow twitched as she stared at me. ‘Well?’ Her face hovered in front of mine while she leant across the bed with her hands on her hips. ‘Don’t you have something to tell me?’ I could not move any further, my back was against the wall behind the bed. With how cute she looked, I did not think she could be this scary. ‘Just say something already!’
‘Kim?’ I shrugged my shoulders and cowered when she growled while pulling her hair. It hurt my neck when she started shaking me by the shoulders. ‘Something else! I know you can say my name!’
She soon sighed then sat on the chair next to the bed. ‘Three days you know, even when Goldie told me to sleep I couldn’t. Not after your heart stopped.’ Her chest convulsed and she started making an odd noise before she looked at me again. ‘Even then, I still fell asleep before you woke.’
I put my hand on her shoulder and grinned. ‘Kim.’ She made the odd noise again then put her hand on mine and smiled back. It was nice to know that she cared, considering anyone could have found me in the snow. I felt lucky to be alive but my memory was another matter.
‘Hey… you are making that face again, I am sorry.’ I never realised she was holding my chin till she lifted my head. Her eyes started twinkling as she inspected my face. ‘I tell you what, repeat what I say and it will cheer me up.’ She chuckled, let go of me then stood with her back to the bed. ‘Thank you.’
Was that what she was waiting for? Why would she be happy if I said that?
‘Tha… nk… yoo… kim’ her mouth dropped, I think I even surprised myself. But my stomach churned when her eyes sparkled.
‘That is fantastic! You don’t know how much it means for me to hear that.’ I winced when she clapped her hands together, my hearing still felt sensitive. ‘Now that is over, you work for me now.’ she started laughing and hopping around the room. All I could do was stare as my mind processed what she just said. ‘Oh don’t look at me like that, do you think I would do all of this for free?’
Kim reached inside her robe and pulled out a small pad of paper. She then started running a finger across it while she looked at me. ‘First there is the transport costs. Then we have provisions and accommodation. Oh and the medical bill, that is not cheap. And don’t forget the biggest expense, the emotional, trauma! You have put me through.’ With her hands on her hips she loomed over me again. ‘So as far as I am concerned, I own you. And if you want to regain your freedom, then you will work for me and pay off your debt.’
As I thought about her words my headache grew in intensity. I wanted to hide but I had nowhere to go. Kimiko had me against the wall again. What do I do? I thought she was kind-hearted, I didn’t believe she could be like this. The pain continued growing to the point where my sight started to blur. And then it peaked in a single agonising throb when I realised what she said.
Kimiko’s eyes opened wide and she jumped back ‘What did you just say?’ her mouth quivered as she reached towards me. But I swatted her hand away and grabbed her by the shoulders.
‘What do you mean own?!’ She tried to move back but I kept my grip. Kim’s eyes darted about as her pupils dilated. ‘Tell me!’ I felt something move and heard a thud. Her mouth wordlessly flapped till we heard the door opening.
It appeared that her companion had returned with a fresh layer of snow over her cloak. ‘Need some help Kimiko? Or can you handle your lovers spat?’ She laughed then sat next to the bed. ‘Or would you rather stay down there?’ What does she mean by that?
When I looked back at Kim, her cheeks flushed and her pupils dilated further. I never noticed that we were on the floor or that I was holding her down by the wrists. ‘erm… I… kimiko?’ Something shifted to my side. When I looked I saw that her robe was open, leaving one of her legs exposed and raised beside me. ‘I… erm… thank you Kim?’ I smiled at her but I did not think it would work.
‘Get off me!’ I soon found myself flying onto the bed. ‘Goldie! Beat him up or something! Why didn’t you stop him?!’ I sat up once I had rubbed the spot where my head hit the wall. Her strength for her size surprised me considering she only comes up to my nose. She was more like a doll than fighter. Where did that analogy come from?
‘You are still working for me! This doesn’t change anything you jerk!’ Kim was stood pointing at me while holding her robe closed. Her face was still crimson even though she was baring her teeth. She then turned to her companion and started stomping on the floor. ‘What do I pay you for? Do something already!’
‘That is funny, I have yet to receive a single gold piece for my work.’ Kim’s companion folded her arms and started tapping her foot. ‘Or have you forgotten our arrangement?’ is Kim going to be okay? I never thought a person could turn that shade of red. But why would I know that?
Kimiko started waving her hands between herself and her companion. ‘No Goldie wait! I didn’t forget… It kind of slipped my mind when we… when we found him. So it’s his fault!’ She started pointing at me again, but I was too distracted to listen to what she was saying. And I could not take my eyes off her.
The pure white was almost blinding. It was like watching the snow covered scenery outside. From the rolling hills in the north and down the smooth plains in the midlands. All ending in a clump of well-maintained forest in the south. ‘And why are you making such a stupid face?! I am being serious here!’ Her outburst freed me from my stupor allowing me to turn away.
My face felt warm from the sight of that privileged moment. I had to look at Kimiko’s companion to calm myself. She had unsheathed the strange dagger and was inspecting it. Appearing unaffected by the situation when she gestured to Kim with the blade. ‘Kimiko, you may want to check your attire. I think your… employee may pass out if you continue to expose yourself.’
The sudden high pitched scream made me cringe. ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner Goldie?! This conversation is not over Mr!’ Kim ran through the door to the rest of the caravan then slammed it closed behind herself.
‘For someone born to a trading family, she has a hard time spotting what is under her nose.’ Her companion started laughing while hitting the bedside table. ‘Were you trying to harm her?’ I looked at her and shook my head as though my life depended on it, I did not want to get into any more trouble. ‘Good, then there was no need for me to intervene.’
‘I never realised I was on top of her till… wait?’ My head felt surprisingly clear and it was easier to think and string a sentence together. Even my body felt more responsive and less numb as I flexed my jaw and fingers. I sat on the side of the bed while looking at Kim’s companion. She did not seem surprised as she twirled the strange dagger between her fingers. ‘Is it safe to do that?’
‘My gloves are thick, the poison only affects the living.’ With a final flip she grabbed its handle then rushed forwards and held the blade to my throat. ‘This dagger is dangerous, but you are a different matter. Why are you still alive?’ The leather of her gloves creaked as her grip tightened, the weapons edge growing closer by the second. ‘The enchanted poison it releases kills all it touches, yet you still live. Even a small cut can kill within minutes but only your heart stopped a day later. Who are you?’
Who am I? Where am I going? Where did I come from? Why don’t I remember? ‘I don’t know.’ I stared into the dark opening of her hood. ‘I don’t know who I am.’ The leather of her gloves creaked again as her arm stopped. We could have been frozen for hours for all I knew.
‘I see.’ With a single motion she withdrew then sheathed the dagger. ‘You are an oddity. On my travels I have never met someone who survived the touch of a tainted blade. But I have heard of many who died through their own inexperience.’ She stood then started walking to the door. ‘I should check on Kim. If I were you, I would help her as much as she has helped you.’
‘Goldie wait…’ My body froze when her hood looked back over her shoulder. ‘I… thanks, for the other day.’
‘I do not need your praise, it is my duty to help those in need and… they call me the “Golden Wind”. But I guess it is acceptable if you wish to address me as Goldie for short. Although it irritates me, Kim appears fond of it.’ With a final nod she went to depart but stopped when a howl broke the silence. ‘Hmm, I would stay close to the caravan for the next few nights, it appears the Fenrir are on the hunt.’ Without looking at me she left the room, leaving me alone to listen to the replies of the first call.
I looked out of the window to the lights of the town in the distance. It was a peaceful night with a full moon, but it did not last long when the door slammed open. Kim entered the room and glared at me, her eyes glowing with a fierce intensity. She put a hand on her hip and pointed at me with the other. ‘We are going to market tomorrow! So since you can talk! your training starts now!’ She bared her teeth and the twinkle in her eyes returned.
I think my stomach fell through the floor in that moment.
‘This is the finest quality silk from the Zinpangu isles sir. An item your nearest and dearest would appreciate in this winter weather. Worn around the neck, over the shoulder, or draped about the waist. It can be worn in all seasons. The colours and patterns will never fade and only serve to enhance her beauty.’ The client, as Kim liked to call them, continued inspecting the fabric. Making occasional groans and tuts. ‘We are only here for the day sir and they are selling fast.’ He looked up at me with a frown, but I kept a small smile while nodding as Kim said I should.
I thanked the man then exchanged the item for currency. After a final wave I dropped the gold pieces into a slot in the caravan’s wall. The silver and copper went in my pocket with the coins that kimiko gave me. Goldie sat on the roof with her legs dangling over the side. She was honing her dagger on a strap of leather. But even if I could not see her face I knew she was watching for danger.
It was a fairly busy day in the town, many people were buying items from various stalls. I smiled when I saw a familiar bob of hair moving amongst the crowd. Even if she did not wear her strawberry hairclip, it was still easy to spot her. Considering she was the only person wearing colourful clothing. Everyone else looked similar as they wore their winter furs.
‘Hey, stop staring off into space, there are people wanting to buy.’ I looked down to see Kim standing beside me with a smile on her face. ‘Come on Mr, you need to start paying your way. Your bill is going up by the day, so make sure to work extra hard for me.’ She chuckled then tapped me on the nose
‘And what of my pay kimiko? Do not believe that I had forgotten our conversation in the night.’ Even if we couldn’t see her face we both jolted and looked up at Goldie. She seemed to have a way of letting people know she was watching when she wanted. It sent a chill up your spine. ‘I have some errands I need to run.’ In one smooth motion she sheathed her dagger and dropped to the floor, landing beside me and Kim. ‘So if you could, I will require ten gold.’ She held her gloved palm up to Kim, leaving the poor girl to squirm and groan while she looked at me.
‘Don’t look at me, I am the indebted employee remember.’ Kimiko pouted then started grumbling when I folded my arms.
‘Fine… here Goldie, could you also pick up some supplies.’ She reached into her robe and retrieved a few more gold pieces than she was asked for.
‘And what of my pay for this task?’ The hooded woman chuckled and held her hand closer to Kim.
‘You are as bad as my older sisters… but fine.’ She placed an extra gold coin into the woman’s hand. ‘Make sure to return soon, we will be leaving before the market closes.’
‘Do not worry, I should not be long.’ Goldie pocketed the coins then departed, leaving Kim holding onto my back while looking over my shoulder.
‘She is scary at times, but she is reliable and strong.’ Kim pushed me forwards causing me to stumble. ‘Well get back to work then! Time is ticking and your bill is only increasing.’ I managed to stop myself falling onto one of the tables. Kimko kept smiling when I looked back at her. This is going to be a long day. I sighed then stood, even if I had to work off my debt, it was still better than the alternatives.
Or at least I kept telling myself that.
In the woods near the town stood a cloaked figure. The only thing that identified the person was a single golden braid. Her eyes scanned the surroundings as she waited. The occasional distant howl perking her ear. She was listening for something in particular, although the occasional bird drew her attention. But she soon went back to her own musings when she realised the sound of flapping was a false alarm.
‘Why would they have something like this?’ The tainted dagger was in her hand, it seemed like any other ornate dagger at first glance. But whenever she gripped the handle it would respond by oozing its toxic payload. ‘They didn’t seem like inquisitors or dark cultists. So why? It was almost as if…’ In a single motion she drew her own dagger and held it to the throat of the person behind her.
‘Kraaaa! It’s me!’ Goldie reached forwards and covered the newcomer’s mouth. But the girl soon calmed down when the dagger was withdrawn. Goldie had to look down as the new arrival only reached her chest in height. ‘Phew… You are too jumpy, ya know that?’ She looked up at goldie through her long and messy red hair. A small smile on her face as she reached into the large satchel at her side. ‘Here ya go, sorry for turning up late, was a little hard to find ya this time.’
‘Thank you, I would like it if you could take this letter to my contact.’ The two exchanged items and stowed them. ‘I apologise, I had to disable my beacon for safety. There was an incident a few days ago.’
The girl saluted Goldie although her arm was obscured by her cloak. ‘No problems, come wind or rain, snow or sea. We will make sure to deliver your mail.’ She secured her satchel then raised her hood. ‘So if that is all, I will see you next time, k?’ With a quiet chuckle the girl departed without disturbing the fallen leaves. As if she were a phantom she glided through the trees.
Once she was alone, Goldie crouched and picked up the large red feather at her feet. ‘Incompetent girl, she should be more careful.’ A rare thought came to her. She started fumbling with her hood till the feather stuck out of its side. ‘Much better.’ She had spent most of her day waiting for her delivery and it was already dark. She groaned when she spotted the trail of feathers leading out of the forest. It was going to take some time but she had to retrieve all of them.
Kim would not stop telling me how elated she is with today’s takings. Although I felt bad for telling people we had limited stock. Since Kimiko wanted to increase her prices when I knew we had more in the caravan. ‘You didn’t need to remind me of how much I owe you between customers. Can’t I have a short breather before seeing the next person? This salesman stuff is harder for me than you think.’ Oh crap. Why did I have to blurt that out? She is already distracted from that trail of thought with how happy she is.
We were sat outside the caravan at the arranged meeting spot. It was a short distance from town near the edge of the forest. Yet we had not seen Goldie since she disappeared earlier in the day.
Kim sat across from me on the other side of the stew pot. She was holding a mug of hot chocolate to her mouth while blowing across its top on occasion. I had no idea what the drink was but she seemed to like it.
Kim looked up at me and huffed before taking a sip of her drink. ‘Because if I didn’t keep it fresh in your mind, then you would not work as hard. It is a simple employer-employee business practice and important for those who owe a debt. Besides, if I stopped reminding you I would have found you hiding somewhere, again.’ It was unnerving how she could scold you while smiling and talking in a sweet manner. ‘And anyway, you did well today. You almost seemed natural, are you sure you have never done this before?’
I shook my head then looked down. ‘I don’t know, you could say that I had a feeling at times. It felt more natural to follow it than to regurgitate what you taught me last night. Not that I don’t appreciate it… some of it helped a lot.’ I scratched my head and chuckled. But she still glared at me over her mug before raising her nose. ‘Hey! Don’t be like that, I said I appreciate your help.’ She just huffed and looked away from me. ‘Fine! You were a great help and you are a magnificent trader.’
‘Of course I am.’ Kimiko stuck her tongue out at me while giggling. ‘And you better keep believing that. You are in the presence of a master merchant.’ She then winked and started drinking from her mug.
‘Oh really? Then why did it take my help to sell to that elderly gentleman?’ Kim snorted then spat the contents of her mouth down her front.
After a short coughing fit she pointed her finger at me. ‘He was just being stubborn! And stop looking so smug!’
It was growing difficult but I kept what I thought was a straight face. ‘He said you were a loudmouth kid who had no idea what she was talking about.’ I winced when Kim’s mug smashed against the side of the caravan. She had flung it when she stood and started pulling her hair.
‘Me not knowing what I am talking about?! He was going on about cotton from the northern kingdoms! when I was trying to sell him Barowool! I didn’t need help from some stupid jerk who won’t even tell me his name!’ We continued looking at each other, I didn’t know for how long. The only sound that broke the silence was the crackling of the fire.
‘You are right… I shouldn’t have said anything.’ What reason did I have to feel proud? Her entire lifetime was spent learning her trade. I did not have the right to undermine her. ‘I’m sorry.’ I looked down at the fire and watched the glowing embers.
I closed my eyes and tried thinking about my past. But a soft warmth pressed against my face which distracted me. ‘Why do you make that face?’ Something wrapped around my head and pulled me further into the comforting embrace. ‘Why do you look like someone just died when I ask for your name?’ I sighed and the softness against my face started moving. ‘Ahh! Stop, that tickles!’ When my nose became caught in a hole, Kim squealed and I found myself falling backwards. ‘Not there!’
‘Why in the hells did you do that for?! I…’ I froze when I saw Kim standing with her stomach exposed. And my mind went fuzzy like when I first met her. ‘Pure white…’
‘Stop staring at me!’ She closed her robe with one hand and slapped me with the other. ‘I was trying to do something nice since you looked like death!’ My mind flashed white and I was sure I saw something in that moment.
‘Kim! Do that again.’ Her second slap left my cheek throbbing. ‘Ah! You didn’t need to hit me that hard!’
‘You were the one that told me to hit you! I was trying to comfort you in the way mother used to comfort me.’ Kim stood in front of me with her arms folded, staring down her nose at me. ‘So why did you want me to slap you again if you complain about it after?’
I sighed and gestured for her to sit, but she snorted and tapped her foot. ‘Okay, I am sorry. Thank you for caring. And I… Though I remembered something when you hit me. But I don’t think it worked the second time.’
Kim sighed then sat beside me. ‘You know, with the vacant look you had, I thought the cold had left you simple when you first woke. Your outburst last night surprised me, but it made me happy.’ She smiled and chuckled. ‘It meant I didn’t have to worry about being reimbursed. Don’t look at me like that again, I am grateful that you saved me.’
I rested my chin on my knee and looked away from her. ‘It doesn’t feel like it. I would think you care more about what you can get from people more than… Hey! Don’t hit me!’ She started to smile while I rubbed my shoulder, the twinkle having returned to her eyes.
‘Of course I view monetary gain as important, I am master merchant… don’t grin at me! You are such a jerk at times… and I was going to ask what is bothering you so much.’
‘Do you really want to know?’ Kim nodded. ‘And not because of me owing…’ She grunted and hit me in the shoulder again. ‘Okay, okay. Then if you really want to know, I… Can’t remember who I am, or my name.’ As I looked at Kim her eyes darted about as they inspected my face.
After a few moments her eyes drooped and her smile vanished. ‘I see… No wonder you looked so shocked when I first asked you. But what about last night?’
‘Well… when I first woke in your caravan my head was kind of, fuzzy.’ I started scratching the back of my neck while laughing. ‘And when you talked about my debt, a pain shot through my head. I guess you could say it was your greed that snapped… Ah! Stop hitting me!’ Her hammering blows to my side were relentless, she was even growling as she went.
‘You arrogant! Pain in the arse! Stupid! Jerk!’ I laid on the floor while covering my side, after a few moments she stopped. ‘Don’t make me worry like that.’ She covered my mouth when I was about to reply. ‘And don’t say anything! You should have told me sooner, no wonder you were so awkward with the customers at first.’ Her hand moved down my arm and found my own, she helped me sit again before yanking her hand away. ‘Erm… well, what did you remember? Maybe that is a good place to start?’
She looked at me while smiling, but my confidence in my memory was no better. ‘I thought I remembered something… but it just feels, jumbled and with parts missing… Azr, Anu, Myr, Xip, Mar, Tin. Just fragments. They could mean anything, maybe what you said sparked them, but I don’t feel that they are my name.’
Kim was looking at me while rubbing her chin. ‘How about Martin? I need to call you something and it doesn’t sound bad.’ For some reason the name felt good when I repeated it. ‘Yeah, I think it will do nicely.’ She started smiling and giggling. ‘But you know what would make ME happy?’ She put her hand on my knee, her eyes narrowing and smile growing as she leant closer. My heart started beating faster and I found myself moving towards her.
I felt something soft on my lips and when I looked it was Kim’s fingers. ‘What would make me happy is if you went and chopped some firewood.’ She snorted and started laughing. ‘The look on your face! It’s priceless! But if you hurry I may subtract it from your debt.’ She winked then gave my knee a squeeze. ‘Come on lover boy! Chop chop!’ She fell over backwards and started rolling about. ‘Chop chop! Get it?!’
‘Yeah, very amusing Kim. Are you sure you will be alright? What if something happens when I go?’ Kim raised her arm in the air and pointed to the forest.
‘I will be fine. I am a big girl remember? And Goldie should be back soon so I will wait inside. So come on! Chop chop!’ She sat up and grinned at me, her eyes sparkling in the firelight. ‘Better hurry or I will eat all the soup before you get back.’
I sighed and took the axe from the log store under the caravan, there was only an arms full left. It was plenty to last the night. What is up with her? Kim’s though pattern was a mystery. But then again, I don’t have any memories of people to compare her with.
The trees near the edge of the forest were too large. It was obvious that others had cut what they could from them. As the lowest branches grew out of my reach. So I found myself a good distance away from the caravan in a clearing of smaller trees. ‘No wonder she wanted me to do this, it’s far harder than I expected.’ I had managed to fell a small birch, I found it odd how I remembered the most disconnected of things from myself. Like the names of the flowers, trees, bushes and animals. ‘No point in dwelling, I best get this chopped into logs.’
The moon was full again tonight so it made the work easier in a way. But I stopped and checked my surroundings whenever I heard the howls coming from the distance. ‘I need to hurry, I don’t want to run into anything out here.’
I heard the snap of a branch from behind when I hefted my axe. And I turned to see a pair of sapphire eyes staring back at me from the shadows. My grip tightened on the handle of the axe as I lowered it in front of myself.
My eyes adjusted as I watched. Its body started coming into view. It appeared to be around the size of a human if they crawled on all fours. But the large ears on its head and the outline of fur made it obvious it was not.
‘A wolf…’ Another sound brought my attention to the route back to the caravan. A second pair of eyes, this time gold in hue watched from the treeline. ‘Shit…’ The clearing had a radius of ten metres, if I was smart I could make it into the treeline.
A second twig breaking made me look back to the first wolf, it had started to move. She looked magnificent, I didn’t know why but I knew the wolf was female. Her fur was pure white and her eyes were ringed with patches of black. And a black tuft of fur crowned the tip of her ears. My assumption just felt right, the wolf was far too pretty to be anything but female. But my musings didn’t comfort me. For some reason I remembered how ferocious the alpha female could be.
‘Erm… nice wolves…’ A second, then a third, fourth and fifth wolf appeared behind the other two. The only direction I could go was further into the forest away from the pack. I would need to be very smart, I had no chance of surviving against a group of seven. If it was just the two I may have been able to fight my way out. ‘What? You… aren’t wolves…’ As the white wolf approached at a slow pace, I started to notice the ice forming under her paws. The only word that came to mind was ‘Fenrir…’
Her eyes narrowed and she bared her fangs, her guttural growl caused the others to advance. Now was not the time to stand around so I ran in the only direction I could. The pack soon followed.
Why was this happening? It was hard enough to walk in snow let alone run through it in a forest. Distant howls were replying to those from behind. Between the trees to my sides I noticed a few more wolves joining the hunt. The pack behind was only growing in size as the pure white wolf led them. An odd thought came to mind; they could have caught me by now yet they are holding back. Are they leading me into a trap?
The forest was thinning and I could see a clearing ahead. But the moon was making it hard to view what lay beyond the treeline. I was certain I could hear running water. This might be my chance to escape if it was a river. But their patience must have ended when they started howling again. My escape route had presented itself, that or I was about to be snared.
When I checked on the pack the white wolf was gaining ground. She lunged for me but I jumped forward, leaving her jaw to snap shut on my cloak. The clasp broke when she pulled, but not before it jolted me backwards. When I looked ahead to regain my footing the ground had disappeared. And the canopy of the woodland was at least twenty metres beneath me.
As I started to fall, I was sure I felt a hand slip through my own.