Directions from a Druid


By Stefan Keller

 

“Just past The Swamp of Misery,” Alvin huffed. “Just past The Swamp of Misery…”

Though his whisper was barely audible in the frigid air, the man just ahead stopped and looked back. An icicle-crusted cloth obscured most of his face, yet he still managed to scowl. “I swear,” he said, his speech muffled, “If ye dunnae stop, ye’ll shortly be asking yer ANCESTORS about The Swamp of Misery!” He faced forward again and continued walking.

Alvin hadn’t even the breath to sigh. Given that, he doubted the other man’s threat had much clout behind it. They were all worn out, cold, and on edge. They’d been at this quest for the longest fortnight of any man’s life: rising in the dark, stopping after the next night’s dark, and sleeping round a sorry excuse for a campfire. And the weather was always, always cold.

If not for a small supply of bottled ale, Alvin felt sure he’d be as frozen a man as that statue up ahead.

Statue? Statue?! “STATUE!!” he yelled, stopping so suddenly he was hit from behind by the next man. Alvin fell to the ground but scrabbled up again. Snow flew from his waving arms and dusted back. “Giant! Statue! We made it!” Pointing and almost hopping, he shouted through his own mouth scarf.

His neighbors to front and back looked where he motioned in a comically slow fashion and blinked their frosted lashes. They pointed, they shouted, they turned to men near them and relayed the message. Soon a chorus of muffled male voices was crying out in disarrayed joy. Arms waved, mittened hands gestured, and petrified limbs found life.

Hope renewed, the company trudged onward with greater speed. Alvin’s feet crunched in time to the rest: Frosted. Giant. Frosted. Giant. It was just as The Druid had described -albeit much farther a walking distance than they had all anticipated from her, “…just beyond The Swamp of Misery” direction.

Up the whitefold hill they trudged; and up, and up. Alvin’s sweating breath exhaled cloudy puffs with the beat of his boots. Though still excited, the men’s synchronized hike faltered on icy rocks and the powder-coated trail. After a half day’s exertions, however, all managed to clamber to the great, gaping base of The Frosted Giant.

Alvin and his companions stared at the dragonlike mouth carved before them, traced its mouth to a pair of nostrils, followed the nostrils to the upper part of a bearded man, then ended at the sunset-glinted, shaggy head of the giant himself.

“The Frosted Giant,” Alvin whispered, and was promptly punched in the arm. “Ow!”

“Told ye I’d teach ye,” a familiar, cloth-wrapped voice said. The man behind it ambled off behind a few others, whom Alvin could see were setting up camp. He followed, rubbing at his arm. Soon the whole company of men were warming themselves around their usual, ineffective fire.

“Right,” grunted the leader, shifting his scarf to below his bearded chin and smiling. Given the frozen state of his facial hair, the friendly expression was more of a grimace. “We made it.”

Eighteen heads bearing varying levels of frost nodded ascent. A few grunted as well.

Alvin could hardly contain his excitement. Forgetting his sore arm and what caused it, he blurted, “Now, we’ve only another fortnight or so till the next destination: The Scorching Phoenix!”

 

Thanks to D. Wallace Peach, a most excellent writer, for the prompt.

Wilhelmina Winters, Sixty-Five

A very somber Winters family walked down the wide hall to the hospital exit, intent on the bleak and cold parking garage beyond. Wil was so absorbed by her thoughts that she bumped right into someone in passing the main reception desk.

“Watch it-!” an angry girl’s voice began, then stopped. Wil stopped as well, her mind slowly catching up with her ears and eyes. “Oh, hey, Wil!” the injured girl said. “Long time no see!”

Wil blinked. It was Reagan. Not sure whether she should acknowledge their friendship or not, Wil decided on copying Reagan’s casual tone. “Hi… um… Reagan. Nice to see you, too.”

Reagan laughed outright. “Yeah.” She could barely suppress a wry smile. “Well, guess I’ll see you at carpool!” And she left, more laughter echoing behind her.

Shaking her head, Wil began walking to the exit once more. She stumbled into her stepbrother this time. “Watch it, Wil,” he grumbled. Surprised at the lack of insult, she glanced up to his face. Jakob was not looking down. He was staring off in the direction of Wil’s carpool companion, his expression one that Wil could not remember seeing before.

Reagan rounded the corner out of sight, and Jakob returned to the present to find Wil staring at him. “Real smooth, Wheels,” he said, shortening his favorite nickname for her due to their parents’ proximity. He slouched out the sliding doors.

“Wil.” She looked to see her mother smiling in an encouraging way. Cynthia held out a welcoming hand. Wil clumped forward to take it and relished the soft, loving, comfortable connection. Her father led her mother led Wil behind her sullen stepbrother and out into the dark winter evening.

Ice cloud crystals hung for seconds before their warm exhalations as they walked. The harsh, cold air cut through their coats and scarves and filled their lungs with frigid breaths. Cynthia began coughing with the strain; they huddled round her and moved more quickly to the car.

Jakob was waiting, leaning against the rusted blue hood of the car. Once Rob unlocked it, Jakob opened Wil’s door for her and half-bowed. Not to be outdone, Wil curtsied. She wobbled to a stand. Jakob pretended to shut the door, so she climbed inside.

Rob turned the key in the ignition and was rewarded with a low *chhh-chhhh-chhhhk*. He tried again, to no result. The third time, he offered it some verbal support. The fourth time, he remembered to give the old sedan encouragement from the gas pedal. At last, it clunked to life. They all relaxed to a shivering relief as the air slowly warmed up.

Rob put the car into reverse. He backed out, straightened, and headed for home. Cynthia turned to smile warmly at Jakob and Wil in the backseat.

“What do you say we all sleep in tomorrow?”

Wil thought that was a great idea.

 

Continued from Sixty-Four.
Keep reading to Sixty-Six.