A sudden sharp hiss and suddenly the flame jumped to life, releasing a small acrid cloud into the dark air that surrounded it. The fire danced gently as it moved forward, slowly licking at the wick of the candle before it split off, giving birth to a new light. The gloomy room gently came in to focus as the flame grew more confident. Emmeline quickly snuffed out the starter, placed it back on the shelf and grabbed the blanket from the bed, draping it around her shoulders to stave off the chill of the cool, damp air. Her fingers, still clutching the blanket, began to run down the binding and she took note of each and every imperfection in the threadbare rag she found herself clinging to for warmth. Her gaze shifted slightly, the corner of her lips tightened, and she wrapped the remains around her, folding her arms with the blanket tucked gently in closed fists.
Emma had been used to finer rooms than this, but the Long Fork Inn was not known for luxury, despite being the only inn within forty miles and the only landmark on this section of one of the busiest roads in the country. The floorboards creaked under foot as her slender frame glided away from the small wooden bed to the window across the modest room she had been given. Still wrapped in the blanket, she sat on the windowsill and stared out into the dim grey of dusk light; only a faint brightness in the distant sky gave any clue as to what time it might have been. The rain continued drumming methodically on the roof above her, amplified by the slow descent of each drop tracing down the cloudy glass that stood between her and absolute misery. A sudden cold hit her and she caught herself biting her raw finger nails while the blanket traveled down her arm, exposing her bare shoulder. She snapped to, grabbing the retreating fabric and bringing it back up to once again shield herself from her surroundings.
What am I doing here? In reality, she knew, she had no idea what she was doing. This is where they sent her, so this was where she went. Thinking back, it seemed rather silly to blindly follow the directions of people she had never met, but she couldn’t ignore them. She had waited for this moment and now that she was here, she found herself clouded in doubt. Maybe she wasn’t meant for this type of work. She was far from home, far from anything she knew or anything she cared about. She was alone, and she knew it.
She looked down at the worn pedestal table in front of her. Sitting on top of the dusty and cracked furniture, a single plate of aged cheese and grapes remained untouched. The innkeeper had tried his best to make her feel welcome, but Moris was used to more casual travelers. She hadn’t told him anything about who she was or where she was headed. She hadn’t even told him how she had come to be here. Still, he somehow knew that she wasn’t the usual sort that frequents the Fork. She could tell. Holding the blanket in place with one hand, she reached down and picked up a single grape and rolled it between her finger and her thumb. The juice slowly started to ooze out and as she looked back to the plate, she watched a single small ant crawl across the top of the white crumbly cheese. She sighed and released the misshapen grape, watching it bounce gently before coming to a quick rest. She wasn’t hungry anyway.
Emma stared back out through the window. It was completely dark now. As she looked out into the night, she could just barely see the puddles on the road continually getting pommeled by a never ending assault of rain drops; the puddles appearing to grow ever so slowly as the rain began to pick up its relentless pace. The noise on the roof was almost deafening now and she shivered, continuing her silent vigil. Hours seemed to pass; hours staring into the darkness. She wasn’t sure how long she stared into the nothingness that stretched out before her. But then, suddenly, a light appeared where there wasn’t one before. The only light, in a field of black shining through the trembling trees beyond the clearing. She sat, expressionless and with held breath as the light grew closer, and closer. After a minute had passed, she was able to make out the shadowy form of a man holding a small lantern on the road below, his worn boots slowly sinking into the mud. His face was largely hidden, but she could see the scraggly brown unkempt hair and stained clothing of a man who seemed accustomed to spending time in the wilderness. A man that was not from the cities. Was this who she was waiting for?
She watched intently as he was joined by another man, the innkeeper she thought, though both men had their hoods drawn up making it nearly impossible to determine who she was looking at. They seemed to be having a heated conversation before the second man pointed down the road. As the man pointed, the rain made every effort to push his cloak up against Moris’ round figure, confirming her suspicions. There was nothing subtle about the exchange. The first man appeared to give the innkeeper a firm pat on the shoulder and a nod, then he continued on his way as if he was in a hurry. The road was empty now, save for the light of the lantern that was growing dimmer and dimmer as the person carrying it got further away, masked by the thick, unforgiving rain. She held her breath for another moment before releasing it and then silently jumping to her feet.
Emma made her way over to the chest at the foot of the bed and grabbed her bag. Her heart beat rapidly in her chest and a thin layer of sweat started to bead on her forehead, even though the room had not warmed at all since her arrival. This was the moment she had been waiting for. Throwing the blanket back onto the bed, she grabbed the thick, damp cloak that had been hanging to dry, putting it over her shoulders with a flourish. She paused. Her stomach growled. She quickly walked to the table, brushed off the ants and wrapped the pitiful assortment of cheese and grapes into a small cloth before putting it into her bag. She was ready. She took one last look around the room. With any luck, there would be little evidence left that she was even here. After reassuring herself that she had collected her things, she came face to face with the flickering candle. She took a moment before gently blowing it out, swallowing the room in darkness.
As she silently made her way out onto the road, her eyes slowly adjusted to the night that surrounded her. Emma once again found herself at the mercy of the rain; her clothes quickly began to weigh her down and she shivered as a long red curl of her hair dripped down in front of her pale face. Brushing the strand aside, she squinted her eyes ahead, straining to find any trace of the mysrerious man and then she finally saw it. The light from the lantern was still there, though now, it was barely visible. She hoisted her pack up over her shoulder and looked back towards then inn. She paused. There was a light coming from the window of her room. Odd, she thought to herself, maybe the innkeeper has come to check on me. She couldn’t worry about that now, there was work to be done. Putting it out of her mind, she started on down the road, following after the light of the lantern and away from the flame that continued to gently dance from the window she had left behind.
To be continued…
Photo Credit: kato9stock