The October sun rose lazily over the treetops, casting a deep orange glow over the misty river valley. With each passing minute, it rose higher and higher, stretching as if waking from a long, deep sleep. Small beams of light crept through the tips of the gnarled and scorched black pines, like long fingers ever reaching for something unseen; their warmth gently parted the haze that covered the lazy town like a thick blanket. With the early hours of the morning sky waning, the ravens circled overhead, looking down upon the frost-covered ground, sparkling in the light like millions of diamonds just catching fire. With each pass, the dark-winged creatures announced their presence with a deep gurgling croak; a warning to all who would dare interfere with their morning hunt. Emma sat staring at them as they continued their dance far above her.
“Foolish creatures,” she mumbled. “Always waiting for something that may never come.”
She realized quickly she wasn’t talking about the birds at all and she lowered her head to stare angrily at the chilled ground underfoot. It had been two weeks since Emma’s encounter in the woods and she was beginning to feel as if she’d been abandoned. Jeames had failed to check in as promised and the council seemed to have no interest in managing a new prospect. Luckily for her, Moris, the old innkeeper, has been nice enough to give her a place to stay. Just down the road to the west, a kilometer away from the Forks sat the town of Braedon. Most travelers wouldn’t even know of the town’s existence as it was largely founded to serve the better-known inn that once proudly stood at the heavily traveled crossroads. A series of small wooden cottages and farms dotted the countryside, almost entirely lost to the world around it. The few dozen people that lived there had very little interest in the goings-on of the larger cities and were more than content to keep it that way. Moris, who had been doubling as the town mayor for countless years, owned a small cabin just on the edge of the river which he claimed used to belong to his mother…or a witch. The story seemed to change every time she heard it and largely depended on Moris’ level of sobriety. Regardless, she was more than happy to take his offer of lodging. In fact, he had insisted on it. He figured it was the least he could do since Emma was nice enough to help him sort through the charred remains of the Long Fork Inn.
Nobody seemed entirely sure what had happened that night. There were only a small handful of people staying at the inn and most of that group had kept to themselves through the storm. The accounts of the few guests that were staying there that night seemed to suggest that it had been an uncharacteristically quiet evening until it wasn’t. Everybody had been asleep when suddenly the whole inn was engulfed by the relentless flames. Several of the guests had mentioned that the fire had spread quickly and completely through the building as if it was a tinderbox waiting to explode. None of it made any sense. Luckily, and strangely, everybody had managed to make it out alive. Her curiosity piqued, Emma had cautiously questioned each of the guests in turn, but their stories all seemed incredibly similar. None of them had admitted any fault and none of them seemed to have any reason to lie either.
So here Emma sat, on the bank of the river, with no task and no mentor. Since her arrival, she had managed to keep herself occupied helping Moris with his crops and cooking the odd meal. In all fairness, she was no cook and it seemed apparent that her host was doing his best to be polite about her complete lack of skill; the awkward grin and the slightly muffled cough were rather telling on their own. Even so, he continued to eat the odd arrangements and mixes of root vegetables and potent aromatic spices she put before him and he had managed to teach her a couple of things in turn, for which she extremely thankful, and mildly embarrassed. Most of Moris’ days were now dedicated to the rebuilding of the inn, which was well underway. Emma had offered her help with that as well, but she knew she was even less skilled at construction than she was at cooking and she decided it was best to stay focused and prepared for the day when Jeames would return for her. In her continued boredom, she had also managed to read through the innkeeper’s entire library of books, which consisted of six old volumes of the history of irrigation in the region as well as one newer volume that seemed to be an anthology of children’s tales and folklore which had proved a far more interesting read. Regardless, each of the dust-covered tomes had failed to keep her busy for longer than a few hours.
Lost in thought, she threw a flat rock out across the glassy surface of the river and watched as it skipped gracefully four times before being hungrily swallowed by the cool, dark water. She sighed just as someone, who had gone surpsingly gone unnoticed until now, tapped her gingerly on the shoulder.
“S’cuse me Miss?” the voice came from behind her. “Miss Emmeline?”
Emma turned to face a young man in plain clothes, covered in soot. Two younger girls, one with brown hair and another with auburn, stood a few feet behind him. Emma quickly recognized the man as one of the other farmers who had been helping Moris’ rebuild. Pawl, she believed his name was. She quickly guessed the two girls were his daughters.
“Yes?” she replied politely, standing up to greet him.
“Sorry to be a bother, but Mr. Moris sent me to give this to ye. A message,” he said as he handed her a rolled piece of yellowed paper wrapped in twine.
“I’ll come to see him in a moment,” she replied dismissively as she brushed the dirt from her breeches.
“Wasn’t from him, Miss. Just told me to pass it along is all.”
Emma froze for a moment before taking the small rolled note from Pawl’s outstretched hand. The girls continued to watch from behind their father, staring curiously at Emma’s well-made but worn and dirty clothing. Emma had never felt more out of place before those two sets of eyes focused on her garments, clearly made for the city. And for someone with money. Her cheeks started to redden.
“Lil! Wyn! That’s enough! Off with ye. You’re making the Miss uncomfortable.” Pawl scolded, shooing the girls away, and Emma watched as they ran off giggling to themselves.
“That wasn’t necessary. I’m sure they meant no offense. You have two very fine daughters.” Emma assured him.
He winced, briefly looking at the ground before looking back up at her again. “No trouble Miss. They ain’t used to seeing fancy folk is all. They won’t be botherin’ you none, you have me word,” he paused before giving her a nod. “I best be gettin’ back to work. Ol’ Moris’ll be needin’ me. You have a good day, Miss.”
Emma watched Pawl walk off down the road back towards the inn, waiting for him to disappear fully before turning back towards the river and untying the message now held delicately in her shaking hands. The twine came undone with a snap and the message unrolled with little effort, leaving her eyes free to scan the quickly inked note.
Need help. Urgent.
55.47.57 x 112.08.45. Investigate immediately.
Will find you.
Emma smiled. This was what she had been waiting for. She quickly tucked the note in the back of her belt and pushed her arms upward to stretch, the now fully risen sun warming each part of her damp clothing. Her eyes locked on to the ravens that been circling earlier, noticing they had found their perch on a nearby tree. As the stared at them, they continued to croak hungrily, paying her very little attention yet completely aware of her presence. She shivered and quickly put the birds out of her mind. Happy to finally be leaving this backwater behind, Emma excitedly darted into the small cabin that had been her home for the last few weeks to begin preparations. She would leave at sunset and hopefully, this would be the last she would ever see of the small town of Braedon.
To be continued…
Photo Credit: Red-River-Potato01