Snow, Gingerbread and Fate

Simahaa strolled across the market in Wirough, trying not to bump into anyone. Which turned out to be extremely difficult since it seemed that almost all people from the northern part of Ren (and their animals) had decided to come to the Boestos market today. She didn’t like wide open spaces stuffed with people and their sheep and dogs. If she thought about it, she didn’t like people at all.

She pulled her warm coat closer around her and moved on. She passed many colorful booths filled with all kinds of things: Self-made wooden carvings of the Gods and wooden weapons for the children. Cured meat and beer. Warm clothes made out of the finest sheep wool. The selection seemed endless; booth after booth.

A thick blanket of snow covered all the roofs. It even piled up to small hills in the street. She liked snow. It buried the land under a silent white blanket and everything became quieter, as if the snow devoured all sound and the land was going to a deep slumber.

Even the light became different. Dull and cold she thought, just as her mind on good days. On bad days, her mind was like the bustling market around her. The mess of voices flooded her brain and washed away all her thoughts, leaving behind raw and unprotected flesh. Every time she bumped into a stranger, it could be that small flashes and visions of its fate stick itself into her brain like hundreds of small needles. If she touched the bare skin of someone, it was worse. Her warm coat and thick gloves partly protected her from that.

The refreshing wind carried many different scents to her nose, some better than the others. She took a deep breath and smelled horse shit mixed with mulled wine and mead which made an interesting combination. Fried apples mixed with the filth of a town as big as Wirough. And gingerbread. That was something she liked and hated because it made her remember her past; her mother used to bake the best gingerbread in all Vayléhn.

Suddenly, she had to stop as a group of children crossed her path. Laughing and chattering with their tiny, high voices and their wooden weapons; playing war. She didn’t like children. They also made her remember the past. Or rather a past, she didn’t have. Where they should be moments like this, with joy, cookies and presents, for her, there was only fire and death, pain and fate.

Fate. She didn’t like that word. Fate had stolen her childhood. Fate had stolen her parents and sister. It had stolen everything from her. Yet, fate was the only thing that defined her now and would probably save them all.

Thank the Gods that the fiery visions from her past slowly had burned to a glow over the years.

She forced herself to go on. Mentally, she stopped her thoughts from going. She didn’t have the time nor the desire to walk down that path in her memories. She had more urgent matters to attend to like buying very important spices and special herbs for her… medicine. Wirough was the only town on this bloody land where she could get Boestos’ tears. As the name suggests, this plant only grew at this time of the year and it was, well… hard to get. It wasn’t some flower which grew on the side of the road or in the woods. And you couldn’t just buy it from your local market. It was more like an “in the shadows” sorts of business. She had often tried to persuade the vendor to tell her where she could find the flowers because she only needed a handful of it. But he kept it a secret. She thought about forcing him to tell her but she wouldn’t want to draw attention to her little secret.

The flower was needed in a special potion which let her sleep better at night. But if one changed some ingredients, it would become one of the deadliest and non-traceable poisons on Ren. So she had to be careful not to let “her King” know about it. He was already paranoid enough anyway.

She passed a few more stands, dodged more people and finally came to a dirty and smelly alley with a dead end. Dirtier and smellier than the rest of Wirough, though. She entered it, wrinkling her nose. At the very end of the alley, there was a heavy wooden door on the left side in the wall. It had a small observation slit at head height and a smaller square-like door at waist height where one could exchange goods. She knocked three times.

After a moment, the observation slit creaked open and a pair of bushy brown and grumpy looking eyes inspected her. “Hood,” the man said with an old and rusty voice. Simahaa had never really seen more than his eyes or his hand, at least not personally. One part of the payment included a small glance at the man’s fate and in these visions, she could see him: a once tall man, now smaller because of his aching back and his stooped posture. He had to be around 50 years old, with long gray hair which he always hid under a cap. She couldn’t quite see his features. For such details she had to stare deeper and longer into his fate.

She pulled back her hood and after he recognized her, the observation slit closed again. Then she heard some rumbling from behind the door and a few heartbeats later, the small door at waist height slid open.

Two big hands appeared. One held a small black pouch with herbs in it and the other was empty and open. Simahaa rummaged around in a hidden pocket inside her coat, took out three coins and dropped them in the open hand. The hand vanished and she heard a satisfied grunt from behind the door, followed by some clinking before the empty hand came back. She sighed and closed her eyes. Then she took off her gloves and touched it.

It took her a few heartbeats before the familiar feeling of déjà vu set in. The light, still shimmering through her closed eyes, and the proximity to the noisy market distracted her. She usually used her blindfold in a quiet place when she read the Essence of Fate. But this had to be enough. Her customer or victim, as she always called them, didn’t know that she could read so much more, given the right circumstances. Or they knew it, but didn’t want to know too much anyway.

She once tried to describe her gift to someone, but couldn’t quite find the right words. Déjà vu seemed to be the closest feeling with which she could specify it. Something you’ve had seen or done before. Not with your eyes and body, but with someone else’s. The first time she had done it, she had to puke all over her bed afterwards. Fortunately, the puking had stopped over the years, but she was still getting sick.

Smell was always the first sensation she perceived. It was strange as it was also the sense which was most tightly bound to her memories. She smelled beer and tobacco smoke. Unwashed bodies and hearty dishes. Before the other senses hit her, she knew that she had to be in some kind of pub. After a moment, the darkness parted and made room for vision and sound and as more and more colors and light replaced the blackness, she could see where fate had taken her this time.

And she had guessed right, it was a pub. Cigarette smoke hung in the air, lit by scattered candles. Laughter and loud voices echoed in her ears. Half a dozen tables stood around, full with eating and drinking people. Many had way too much to drink already and entertained the people, who were not drunk yet, with their doubtful singing talent. On a few tables, the men were playing King’s Fate, a card game of the common folk.

She sat on one of the tables. In front of her were three other men. She let her eyes slowly wander from one to the other; scanning everyone a few heartbeats long. Only then, the person’s facial features became so clear that she could recognize them. Too fast and everything got blurry and foggy. And that was the main reason why she always got sick.

She had never met these men personally but now she knew them because he knew them. It was very confusing and contributed to her nausea.

A lot of money was on the table and Simahaa had a good hand. A few more rounds and she would win, she thought.

Suddenly the surroundings changed. This was not uncommon in her visions but was as unpleasant as the rest of it. She felt as if she was falling and hitting the ground hard. All of the air was forced out of her lungs. She pressed her teeth together and shook off the uncomfortable feeling because the vision continued immediately.

She was walking home now, tired and drunk but satisfied, because she had won a lot of money this evening. She staggered carefree through a dark alley. Only a few more streets and she could fall in her warm bed happily. But Simahaa knew what was coming now even if he didn’t. She prepared herself mentally for the next feeling; the ugliest and most terrible of all the feelings she got inside her visions of fate.

As the heavy wooden club crashed down from behind her and busted her head like a cabbage, she bit her tongue not to cry out loud.

She was used to getting hurt inside her visions. That had happened so often in the past that she knew what to expect. But dying… Dying felt like nothing. It was black, cold and silent. She couldn’t breathe nor could she hear. In fact, she could not feel anything. She just existed. This is what it must feel like when you are a stone, she had often thought grimly. That was something she would never get used to. Not that she wanted to.

Thank the Gods her journey on the strands of fate were over before her dead body hit the cold and dirty cobblestone. In the last few images before she returned to the here and now, she could see the three men from earlier at the pub, standing over her dying body.

Simahaa slowly opened her eyes and took a deep breath. Then she leaned herself against the wall beside the door and vomited her breakfast.

The observation lid of the door slid open and the man behind it grunted. “Not good, eh?”

Simahaa shook her head. She spit the rest of her food on the ground and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Some blood was on it, probably because she had bitten her tongue. “Not good,” she said. “You should keep away from King’s Fate and pubs the next few weeks, if you value your life.”

The man wrinkled his eyebrows, then he grunted again and closed up both lids in his door.

“You are welcome,” Simahaa said and spit one last time against the door. She pulled her hood back up and walked out of the alley into the crowded market.

The thought of getting rid of her source of Boestos’ tears crossed her mind again. It would be much cheaper and healthier in the long run. But first she had to find another source or getting him to tell her. Meanwhile her purchase should last for a few months. She absently touched the bag in her hidden pocket. A few more months of dreamless sleep.

The market stalls and people became less and less, the closer she got to the outskirts of Wirough. Not long and she would reach the stables where she had left her horse. And then she could finally leave this bloody town.

Instinctively she turned left on the next crossing, even though the way to the stables were on the right. She didn’t know exactly why she was going this way, only that it felt right. Simahaa had learned to trust her instincts over the years and although she hated it, she trusted in fate. Sometimes she was afraid that everything she had done or what she will ever do is not controlled by her, but by that damn fate.

The two thieves who had been chasing her for a while now, were still following her. She would have noticed them sooner, if she hadn’t been a little weak from her fate-walking, yet.

The street was nearly empty, only a few people roamed about; some with their horses and some with their goats. A carriage rolled past her. She quickened her steps and slipped in another back alley, using the carriage as a cover. As it turned out, it was a dead end. She knew that she couldn’t shake her pursuers off with such an amateurish attempt. But she knew that she had to be in this exact alley at this exact time. The feeling of fate had never been as strong as right now.

Simahaa stopped, turned around and pulled out a dagger from another hidden pocket. This startled the two young men in front of her and they stopped, too.

Or should she say boys? They could not be older than sixteen years. They were very thin and what you could mistake for a beard was just dirt. The rest of their appearance, on the other hand, was surprisingly clean and orderly. They were wearing expensive looking clothes and good boots, but they were all several sizes too big for them. It made them look even thinner. All in all, they made a very strange impression on Simahaa and she couldn’t help laughing.

The two looked at each other in confusion. “What’s s-so funny, old hag?” said the right one. He tried to sound intimidating but failed miserably.

“Well first, I am no hag, thank you very much,” Simahaa said and waved around with her dagger which made the two flinch. “Old yes. Maybe. Older than you two snotty-nosed brats anyway. And second, if you’re already putting on your stolen clothing, at least wash yourselves properly! Everything about you screams: ‘I am a lousy thief’!”

They inspected their clothing like seeing them for the first time. “W-we found it!” the left one said.

“Of course you did,” Simahaa answered calmly. “Well, what now boys?”

The left one whispered something to his friend and then they started arguing. Simahaa couldn’t understand what they were saying, but as both pulled out daggers of their own – the left boy hesitated a little – she guessed they had come to an agreement.

Oh fate, in what mess have you brought me this time? Simahaa thought. It had been a while since she last had to fight. She might be able to defend herself against one, but two? The best option at the moment would probably be to just run away or call for help, but she didn’t want to do either. So she readied herself and took a defensive stance like she had learned so many years ago.

The boys hesitated one more heartbeat before coming closer.

“Hey, you two!” a voice suddenly rang out behind the two wannabe thieves. They whirled around startlingly. Simahaa took a step to the side to peer past them. A young man and woman were standing there at the entrance of the alley. The man had a short bow at the ready with an arrow on it. The woman stood slightly behind him, holding a long staff. The man eyed the daggers of the boys and then Simahaa. She wasn’t holding a dagger anymore; it had vanished into her cloak a moment earlier.

“Need help, good woman?” the young man said.

“Are these two kids making you any trouble?” the woman said.

“Well yes, a little help would be appreciated,” Simahaa said. “They wanted to rob me and defile my naked body or something like that.”

“W-What?!” the left boy said, eyes wide open.

“You crazy old hag,” the right one said. “We didn’t want to do anything like that!”

“I would suggest that you get the bloody sheep-shit outta here before my husband shoots an arrow up your bony little butts!” the woman said. Simahaa immediately liked her.

The two boys looked at each other one more time before stumbling out of the alley. As they passed the woman and her husband, the woman gave them a smack with her staff. “Find a decent job!” she called after them.

“Thank you both,” Simahaa said as she walked up to the strangers to take a closer look. The woman looked younger than the man, in her mid-twenties, Simahaa guessed. She had a warm and friendly face and long raven hair that looked out from under a green wool hat. His hair and well-groomed beard was black, too, although Simahaa could already spot gray hair in it. The woman’s cheeks were red, probably because of the cold. They both wore simple but neat and warm clothing and the woman had a large backpack hanging over her left shoulder.

And it was very obvious that the woman was pregnant. “Ah, nothing to thank for, good woman,” she said.

“Yes,” the man said. He put his bow and arrow away.

“We were just on our way home from the market and saw you rushing into that alley,” the woman continued, looking behind her shoulder, “followed by those two very suspicious looking boys.” As she turned her head back, she smiled. Then she reached out her hand. She was not wearing any gloves. “My name is Elna by the way. And this is my husband, Brennard.”

Simahaa hesitated and eyed the offered hand one moment, before removing her glove and shook Elna’s hand.

She also wanted to introduce herself but the sudden impact of a vision slapped her in the face like she was hit with a sledgehammer. She knew the moment it was happening that this was no ordinary vision. It all happened so fast and with such a force that she couldn’t make anything out of all the images and sounds which bombarded her brain. A young girl. A name. Wind and rain. Crying. Pain. Darkness. A long journey underneath the ground. And at the end… fate, chaos and Yldir Vac. Then nothing and everything at the same time.

Simahaa swayed and tipped forward but Brennard caught her.

“Good woman? Are you alright?” Elna said.

“I’m fine…” Simahaa’s voice trembled. “Just a bit shocked from the recent events…” She put her gloves back on and tried to stand upright again. Her legs felt like they were made of jelly.

“Are you sure?” Brennard said and let go of her.

“Yes, yes…” She saw Yldir Vac. Why did she have a vision of Yldir Vac?

“Why don’t you come with us?” Elna suggested. “Brennard and I are on the way to his cousin’s farm, just outside the city. It’s warm and they have plenty of room and food.” She smiled again. “And mulled wine and the best gingerbread from here to Silen,” she added with a wink.

Simahaa had to know more. She had to go back; a journey on the never ending and intertwined strains of fate again. But she was too tired and drained at the moment. “Well, yes,” she said after a while. “If you don’t mind, I could really use some wine and some gingerbread.”

“Then it’s settled!” Elna said, linked her arm with Simahaa’s and started walking. Her husband followed with a grunt.

“Do you already have a name for your child?” Simahaa asked after a few steps.

Elna laughed and rubbed her big belly proudly. “You can’t miss it, can you?”

“I offered to carry the backpack,” Brennard said, “but my wife said it balances the weight.” Both laughed. Simahaa smiled.

“If it’s a boy, we call him Finnán,” Brennard said.

“And if it’s a girl?” Simahaa asked.

“Arthema,” Elna said.

The End Beginning