The World of Stores and Fables Chapter 20

Katy Abbe, Columnist

The bar was almost deserted when I wandered over to the counter. There were only few men sitting around, talking calmly about sheep and wool trading, and a young girl sitting in the far corner, huddled under a large blue cape with the hood covering her eyes; sitting next to her was a basket of more similar cloaks, all coming in a different color. At the bar stood a barmaid, who was smiling cutely, waiting for me to reach the bar before she greeted me.

“Good evening, Miss, what can I get for you?” She smiled, brushing back her long black hair that looked as silky as swan feathers.

“What do you have?” I asked, my stomach rumbling as the smells of roasted meat and herbs tantalized my nostrils.

“Well, we have shepherd’s pie, stew, potato pie, beer bread, and countless drinks.” She winked, her golden eyes glittering mischievously. “Any of it sound good?”

“I’d like some potato pie, if that’s fine, and some milk, please?” I held out a gold coin. She nodded, taking the coin and reaching into her pocket, removing a handful of coins and placing them into my hand. She had given me two silver coins and three copper coins. I slipped them into my pocket and sat down at the bar while the girl went back to the kitchen. I waited calmly, drumming my fingers against the counter to entertain myself.

As I waited, I took in my surroundings. The girl continued to sit in the corner, waiting patiently and quietly for something. The men continued to chatter; they all sounded somber and the rumble of their hushed voices was soothing.

The bar was lit dimly, with the soft glow of candles flickering weakly. The whole room was filled with a mixture of smells. Some were sweet, like the herbs and cooked meat, but the others left a sour twang, coming from sweat and hops. The sour definitely took away from the sweet, but I found that if I kept my inhales shallow and I focused on the sweet smell of food, I was able to tolerate it all. I glanced toward the wall, observing the wooden planks that appeared to be breeding grounds for something green as my thoughts turned to Arthur and Jason.

Arthur wasn’t speaking to me, and Jason seemed to think he had to prove himself to me. I could understand why, I mean, Arthur was suffering because I started the quest and Jason still hadn’t gotten me to really acknowledge him. It was unfair; as he was still a stranger to me, though I wasn’t a stranger to him. I wondered if I needed to try harder to remember who I was. What if Jason wasn’t the only one who needed me to remember? What if I was letting a lot of people down?

The barmaid returned and plopped a plate down on the counter, sending a clangorous crack into the air. I jumped, but thanked the girl as she placed a glass of milk and fork next to the plate. My lips curled into a smile as I inhaled the scent of soft potatoes and melted cheese. The crust was a dark, golden brown, and smelled fantastic. I gave the barmaid a grateful nod and in return she gave me a sweet smile before heading back into the kitchen, leaving me alone to eat my dinner in shame, at least… I thought I was alone.

“Excuse me, ma’am.” A young voice said next to me. I whirled around, almost falling off the stool as my gaze fell onto the young girl in the blue hood. She appeared to be looking down, but I wasn’t able to see her eyes to make sure. Her little hands were clutching the basket of goods close, like her whole life depended on it.

“Ah? Yeah?” I prompted, bringing my hand to my chest as my heart pounded with surprise.

“Would you be willing to spare a piece for me?” She mumbled, her voice shy and low.

“Oh,” I turned to my plate of pie. My stomach grumbled but with a glance back toward the girl, whose lips were tight and cheeks were pale, I nodded. “Sure, take the whole thing.” I pushed the plate to the next seat. The little girl looked up at me, her silver eyes glowing with awe and admiration. Still clinging the basket, she hopped onto the stool and began shoveling the pie into her mouth. I waved toward the kitchen, trying to get the barmaid’s attention. It took a few moments, but she finally noticed and returned. I handed her a silver coin and asked for another slice of pie, which she promised to deliver right away.

“Thank you, Miss!” the little girl cried next to me. I glanced over in surprise, in such a short amount of time she had licked the plate clean. I moved the milk glass towards her and she eagerly drank down the smooth liquid. When she put the glass down, the top of her lip was covered in a line of white.

“You sure were hungry.” I commented, a weary smile touching my lips.

“I haven’t eaten since yesterday.” The girl replied, holding my gaze with a calm expression in her silver eyes. “It’s hard to sell cloaks here.” She lifted her basket.

“What about your parents?” I asked, my eyes wide. “Can’t they take care of you? Feed you?” The barmaid dropped the plate of pie by my side, and questioned if we needed anything else. I nodded, asking if she would bring more milk and shepherd’s pie for the little girl. The barmaid nodded with a smile before disappearing into the kitchen.

“Ma’am, thank you!” The girl said when I returned my attention to her. Her eyes were bright and her round cheeks were flushed. “But, no, my parents aren’t around. My grandmum is the one who takes care of me, but we don’t have a lot, so I have to sell her cloaks she makes if we want to eat.”

“Oh,” I frowned, my heart reaching out to the child. “Well, how much are you selling them for?”

“One silver coin, Miss,” the girl began rummaging through the basket and pulled out a long, scarlet colored cloak with a hood embroidered with golden apples circling the lining. My breath caught in my throat, stunned by the beautiful cloak. “As a thanks for the meal, will you take this?” The young girl held it out, offering it with a twinkle in her eyes.

“No, I can’t except that,” I shook my head furiously. “But I will pay for it,” I slipped my hand into my pocket and pulled out a silver coin. A look of horror overcame the girl’s features and she shook her head.

“No! Grandmum says you have to return the kindness that strangers show you! It would be bad if I sold you something after you helped me so much.” She insisted, placing the hood into my lap but refusing to take the coin.

“Well, think of it this way,” I pleaded gently as the barmaid returned with the food and drink. The smell of roasted vegetables and creamy potatoes hung in the air, causing my mouth to water as my gaze flickered to my meal. I picked up my fork and dug into the meal. I brought the fork to my lips, letting my hand hover as I continued. “You can return this kindness to someone else, in the future, when you aren’t struggling to get food.” I slipped the coin into her hand and then took a bite. The potatoes melted on my tongue.

“But…” The little girl looked down at her palm and then back up at my eyes. She pouted for a moment, contemplating a comeback as I continued to eat my pie, letting the buttery food satisfy my taste buds.

“Alright, but I will help you tonight with something, I promise, Miss-?” She gave me a look as she started to dig into her shepherd’s pie.

“Artemis, just Artemis,” I offered a smile after I quickly swallowed. “You?”

“My name is Scarlet, but my grandmum calls me Little Red.” She answered through a mouthful of vegetables.

“Little Red?” I repeated, pausing for a moment. The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place my finger on where I had heard it before.

“Yep, she says that red is a passionate color, one that rarely thinks things through, like me.” Scarlet explained, “It has a tendency to love with all it has, and it likes to patch things up when things are broken.”

“Red?” I furrowed my eyebrows, taking another bite.

“Yep, because you only bleed when you have a scratch, and that’s only to heal yourself. Blood scares people but it’s often there to help you heal. That’s what Grandmum says.” She shoveled more food into her mouth.

“Huh,” I frowned. That was a bit of a stretch, but I couldn’t think of anything wrong with that logic.

“Artemis means the moon, right? Or that you’re like the moon?” She tilted her head.

“I guess, yeah.” I nodded as I chewed. Her eyes lit up and she slipped her hand into her pocket. She pulled out a milky white stone that had a bluish tint. It was in the shape of an oval, and looked as smooth as glass. She held the stone toward me, and I picked it up gingerly, examining it with curiosity.

“I want to give it to you, my daddy gave it to me when I was young. He said to give it to someone who is like the moon, and that it’ll help that person find their heart.” Scarlet smiled.

“Oh, but if it’s your dad’s…” I tried to hand it back, but the little girl was adamant.

“No, he told me to give it to someone, and I want to give it to you.” She grinned, turning back to her meal. I stared at the stone for a moment, running a finger across it’s smooth, cold surface, before slipping it into my pocket.

I returned to my meal, and we ate in silence for a bit, savoring the creamy flavors. I was about to take my last bite when a long, low howl vibrated through the air. Everyone in the bar paused, listening to the close call of the wolf. The howl held for a few long moments, sending chills up my spine as I glanced toward the door. Soon, the howl died away and hushed murmurs began to fill the room.

“The wolves are getting closer.” Scarlet commented with a low voice.

“It’s a bit scary, huh?” I turned toward her, placing my fork down. I didn’t think I could eat one more bite with all the excitement.

“No,” she shrugged, “wolves aren’t bad, some are lonely, and tired of being strong. Sure they get a little out of hand, but none of the wolves have hurt anyone. They only bite people, and after that, the person is never attacked again.”

“That’s odd.” I glanced back toward the door, thinking of Arthur and Jason. I hoped they were both ok.

“But it makes sense, the more people they bite, the less they have to fear.” She continued eating.

“I’m not following.” I frowned.

“Grandmum doesn’t like wolves, and she said that your friend was bitten, right?” Scarlet asked, glancing at me curiously.

“Wait, your grandma-” I started with surprise.

“She’s the town healer, but no one really trusts her. She doesn’t trust anyone though, so it evens out. I think that stone I gave you will help a lot, though. Stay close to your friends, because wolves don’t like to lose.” She drank some of her milk, watching me with a nonchalant gaze. My heart pounded in my chest.

“I see,” I pushed myself from the stool, holding the cloak in my hand.

“You’re going to see them, right?” She asked. “Because both of them joined the hunt.”

“Arthur, and Jason?” I asked, my pulse racing.

“I guess.” She shrugged. “I don’t know their names, but if you’re going to help them, you better hurry.” I drapped the cloak over my shoulder, frowning as I eyed the girl curiously.

“How do you know all this?” I asked, tying the string around my neck and pulling the hood over my short hair.

“My grandmum taught me about wolves, and how they’re beasts, but when my dad was around he told me about how they care about each other, how they only care about their pack.” She answered gently. “Wolves always protect the ones they love.”

“Like Arthur…” I muttered, thinking about his knightly code. He really did have a big heart to care so much about so many people. Scarlet gave me a smile and I returned it weakly. I glanced toward the door, feeling my stomach churn as I thought about what I was about to do. My hand moved to the sword that was still tied to my waist. I wouldn’t let wolves get the best of me again. I would help Jason, bring him back, and then I would make sure Arthur was doing alright. I was determined to be strong for them, like how Arthur was strong for me.

Scarlet and I shared goodbyes and without a moment of hesitation, I left the inn and started for the town gate. The walk there was eerily quiet. The streets were empty and most of the homes seemed deserted, which I found odd. There had been so many people when the sun was out, what had become of them when the moon took it’s spot in the sky?

The entrance to the town fared no better. The old man from earlier had disappeared, and in his place, much to my horror, lay a snoring wolf.

The wolf looked exactly like the wolves from before, with a horribly hunched back and a large snout better for chomping bones in half with. However, the wolf at the gate had no meat to him, his patches of stringy, silver fur clung to his bones. He was a smaller wolf, but from the wear and tear on his body he must have many years behind him. He seemed harmless enough, as he lay there sleeping, and I inspirited myself to push the gate open.

The gate let out a high-pitched wail as soon as I shoved it forward about a foot. My eyes widened as the ear-piercing sound vibrated through the air and I quickly glanced toward the wolf, whose golden eyes blinked open. My heart pounded in my chest as I held the wolf’s gaze. He lifted his head slowly, keeping his scrutinizing eyes on me. After a few long seconds ticked by, he let out a yawn, his floppy pink tongue curling, and lowered his head. His eyes closed and he slipped off to sleep.

I stood there for a few moments, my heart still gripped by terror, as I tried to steady my breath. Once my erratic pulse leveled itself I slipped through the gate and tiptoed past the wolf; when I was a few yards away from it, I sprinted toward the forest, putting as much distance between us as I could.

Finally I reached the forest, and it’s sweet smell of leaves and moist earth filled my nostrils. The full moon hung over head gently, watching me as I stood just outside the barriers of the trees. My heart was drumming in my throat, and my legs were quivering. A chorus of howls came from the woods, which were soon followed by a rumble of shouts. Somewhere, the humans had found the beasts.

I was too late.