In the Waylight Lodge the hearth was always warm. It was an old snow covered log building that sat as a last bastion of peace on the harsh road north to the Great Kragen Mountains. Just outside the village of Frosthollow, the Waylight gave weary travelers one final chance for respite before braving the treacherous range. The thick wood surrounding the lodge provided plenty of trees for firewood; evergreen branches all bent low with winter’s weight.
Though surrounded by frigid winter snowdrifts, the small lodge glowed with warmth; smoke billowing out of the stone chimney, chugging into the dark night sky. The true warmth in the lodge came not from the fireplace but from the stories that always filled the air, wafting as woodsmoke and filling the inn with a familial radiance. While the world outside was oppressive with cold, the countryside clutched tightly in winter’s cruel grip, Gemman Krast regaled his grandson with smoldering tales of awe and wonder.
“The world is old… “, Gemman said as the fire crackled, “older than you can imagine, young one.”
“Older than you grandpa?”
Leko, a young boy of about eight with sandy blonde hair, stared in wide-eyed amazement as he listened to his grandfather’s tale. Story time was the time that he cherished most, and it came often in their little lodge. If grandpa wasn’t spinning a yarn, then Leko was usually adept at drawing a story out from one of the lodgers availing themselves of one of their rooms for rent; though that happened more in the summer months. They hardly saw anyone foolhardy enough to travel the Kragens in the dead of winter.
Gemman chuckled. “Yes Leko, far older than me. Older than my grandpa, or his grandpa before him, or even his grandpa’s grandpa…
Back before there were any humans -or elves or dwarves for that matter- there were the Children of Ima. Back when the world was still young, with no continents or kingdoms dividing the land, the children of Ima played all over the wild and formless realm…”
“Ima?” the boy asked, blinking in that innocently forgetful sort of way that children do when an oft repeated story, or loving correction, hasn’t been retained.
“Child, you know Ima…” Grandpa said in a tone filled with love, but acutely aware that this was a repeated lesson. He gestured towards a small stone statuette sitting on its own table near the window. The idol was about two feet high and resembled a young woman in long flowing robes. Her face was smooth; indistinct, like the artisan who carved her dare not venture a guess at what a goddess might look like. She was surrounded by dried flowers and candles, and a small currently empty bowl sat on the table in front of her.
The child nodded in recognition. Gemman continued his story, “The Children of Ima were mighty warriors… The twin brothers, Chos and Krage, formed the mountains as they wrestled each other. Ugota thought the landscape too plain, so she planted the great forests. Aesitra had her heart broken, and her tears formed the very oceans…”
“Who broke her heart?” Leko interrupted, giving his grandfather a concerned look.
Gemman paused. “Eventually, Ima had more children, and we humans came to live in the land… It was a human man who broke Aesitra’s heart.”
“A human made a goddess cry?”
“Why did he do that?”
Gemman stared wistfully off into the distance. “Sometimes it can’t be helped, boy. Sometimes you hurt the ones you love, even when you don’t want to.”
Leko sat nodding his head for a minute, mimicking understanding. Of course, being eight years old, he had not yet lived enough life to quite grasp the true meaning of his grandfather’s words, but that answer seemed to satisfy him for the moment, though it sparked new and unexpected questions in the boy.
“Was it you grandpa? Did you make her cry?”
At this, Gemman’s eyes went wide, his bushy eyebrows lifting themselves so high on his forehead they threatened to take flight, and he let out a bellowing laugh.
“No, no child. I have done a great many things in my eighty-odd years, but court a goddess twasn’t one of them!” He tousled the boy’s hair, “Besides, your grandmother’s the only woman for me- though I dare say, she’s as beautiful as any goddess ever was!”
Gemman’s boisterous comment elicited a disembodied laugh from the other room that mingled its own sweetness into the warm atmosphere of the room. Grandma had been listening from the kitchen where she was busy making soup and fresh bread, the scent of which also spread itself amply about the lodge.
Gemman winked at his grandson, his leathery face crinkling with lines made by years of similar warm stories and laughter. Leko giggled.
“Boys, dinner’s ready!” Grandma called from the kitchen. Leko leapt to his feet and rushed into the kitchen, eager to fill his belly with warm broth on this cold night. Gemman followed, but slowly, using his cane to pull himself up from his comfortable chair in front of the fire. On his way into the kitchen, he stopped for a moment next to the shrine of Ima.
He grabbed a coal from the fireplace with a pair of metal tongs and placed it in the bowl in front of the statuette. Then, from a small box next to the table he took a handful of incense and sprinkled it over the coal. Small, fragrant wisps of smoke began to dance upward, circling in invisible eddies and hanging in the cabin’s mostly still air. He lingered for a moment, eyes closed and head slightly bowed in reverence. Then, in a motion as familiar as breathing, he kissed his fingers and touched them to the smooth face of the statue before heading the rest of the way into the kitchen for supper.
Not two minutes after they had sat down for their meal, there came a loud knocking at their door.
“Now who could that be in weather like this?” Gemman said. Grandma began to rise to get the door, but Gemman quickly interjected.
“Sit Wissa! Eat. You’ve been working hard. Sit and relax, I’ll get the door.” He used the arm of his chair and his cane to pull himself to his feet and made his way to the door, Leko trailing close behind, excited about their visitor.
Another knock sounded on the heavy wood door, and Gemman called out. “Coming! Saint Lucian’s Flame, I’m coming!” Reaching the door, he undid the thick iron latch and slowly pulled the door open just enough to see out.
The wind howled, buffeting the cracked door with the ferocity of a pack of wild dogs, snow and draft invading the room through the small opening. Gemman squinted against the brisk onslaught. After his eyes adjusted, he could see a young man standing outside, bundled in many layers of thick animal hide, with the look that he had been traveling. He had dark hair and a bit of stubble which had ensnared a great deal of wayward snowflakes like flies in a spider’s web.
“Good ev’nin'” the young man said, “Am I to understand you’ve got rooms?” He couldn’t have been much older than thirty, Gemman surmised, but he had a weary look to him that suggested he’d lived a great deal of life in those thirty years. Hard living aside, there was a pleasantness to him that came across even in that short meeting, which put Gemman at ease.
“Aye,” the older man said, “Here, come in out of the cold.” He pushed the door open further to let the man in and then quickly shut it behind him to keep as much of the cold’s incursion at bay as he could.
Now that he was inside and lit by the firelight, they could see that the man was covered in small cuts. None of them fresh, he wasn’t bleeding, but they did not have the look of old scars either.
“Thank you kindly,” he said as he began to remove his large leather boots. They were soaked to the bone, and he soon removed his wool socks as well, massaging his feet with his hands to warm them.
“We just sat down to dinner. There’s warm soup and bread,” Wissa called from the kitchen.
“That would be lovely,” the stranger said, “It’s been a few days since I’ve had a warm meal.”
“I’m Gemman Krast, I run this lodge with my wife Wissa. And the little one there is our grandchild, Leko.”
The man stuck his hand out to Gemman for a shake. “Name’s Ortan. Ortan Wrensworn.”
“I’m Leko! Are you going to stay here? Where did you come from? Can I touch your beard? I’m eight! How old are you? Is that a real sword!?”
The boy buzzed with excitement, harrying their guest with a barrage of questions far too quickly for him to respond.
“Quiet Leko, let the poor man alone!” Wissa called from the kitchen, with a resolved tone that spoke of how common the boy let his excitement get the better of him.
“It’s alright,” Ortan said chuckling. He knelt down so that he could be eye-level with Leko. “Yes, it is a sword. The roads can be dangerous.”
“Can I see it!”
Ortan looked at Gemman, raising an eyebrow quizzically.
“Maybe after dinner Leko,” Gemman said. At this mention of dinner Leko suddenly remembered that he was hungry and went bounding off back to the kitchen.
“Ortan, you can sit by me!” He called excitedly as he went.
“Let me show you to your room so you can get into some dry clothes before dinner.”
Gemman led Ortan up the stairs to one of the extra rooms they had. It was small but had everything a traveler might need for a restful night of sleep. “I’ll leave you to it,” Gemman said, closing the door gently as he retreated back down the stairs to join the family at the dinner table. Ortan scanned the room and found a place to hang his clothes over the fireplace. He reached deep within the pack he had been carrying on his back and was able to find a tightly rolled wad of sleeping clothes that had managed to remain mostly dry. He quickly changed, even as his stomach began to rumble, and the hunger pangs he’d been successful at ignoring to this point could abide no longer. The smell of the soup permeated his room and made him almost trip over his pants as he tried to hurriedly put them on.
Once dressed, he made his way into the kitchen and took a seat at the table next to little Leko. The fact that the boy didn’t immediately start in on Ortan with his puerile inquisition told Ortan that the boy had probably had a bit of a talking-to while he was in the other room. It was actually Wissa who spoke first.
“We don’t get too many travelers by in the midwinter months. You’re either doing something very important, or you’re crazy, or very stupid. So, which is it?”
Gemman started to make a placating gesture but Ortan smiled. “Well, I’m not about to deny my stupidity… But actually I’m looking for my sister.”
“Your sister?” Leko piped up, not able to contain his curiosity. Wissa looked at the boy sternly but said nothing.
“She went missing a few months ago. I’ve been trying to track her down, heard rumor she may have come through the mountains not too long ago…”
“She ain’t been here, I’m afraid,” said Gemman, “We haven’t had a boarder or even a guest for the night since the big snow started falling. Probably at least a month now where it’s just been the three of us.”
“Well, I thank you for the warm place to sleep. I’ll continue my search in the morning.”
“Why did your sister go away?” Leko asked innocently.
“Leko, leave the man alone.” Wissa chided.
“No, it’s alright,” Ortan said. “I don’t know, little one.”
“Well, I hope you find her,” Leko said sweetly, “I don’t have a sister.”
“She’s the only one I have,” said Ortan. Leko stared into his soup bowl for a minute, not knowing what to say, finally he spoke.
“Grandpa! Can you finish your story?” Leko asked before turning aside to Ortan, “Grandpa’s stories always make me happy when I feel sad.”
“Well, alright,” Gemman said, “Now where was I?”
“The man who made the goddess cry!” Leko almost shouted with excitement.
“Aesitra,” Ortan said thoughtfully.
“Yes, Indeed,” Gemman said.
“She fell in love with a blacksmith’s boy,” Ortan began, “He would make her pretty things out of iron and steel.”
“You know your lore boy,” Gemman chuckled. Ortan might have corrected Gemman’s use of the word ‘boy’ had Gemman not been at least fifty years his senior.
“My father used to tell me that story,” Ortan said with a sad smile.
“But I thought love was a good thing? Why did that make her cry?” Leko asked, a puzzled look on his face.
“It didn’t at first,” Gemman replied, continuing where Ortan had left off, “The blacksmith’s boy returned her love, and they were happy together for a time. He made great statues and works of art in her honor, masterful pieces made from iron, bronze, and even gold. But in the end, he grew old, and his body failed him, while the goddess stayed the same as the day they had met. And then he was gone and all that remained of their love were the sculptures he had made. You see Leko, goddesses live much longer than men do.”
Leko seemed to consider that for a minute. “That’s a sad story Grandpa,” he concluded.
“Life is full of them, little one. In time you’ll learn that…”
“Alright Leko, It’s time for bed,” Wissa said, scooping the boy up into her arms. He only complained a little, and it was evident that the boy was tired, despite his petitions to remain awake with the others.
“Good night, Ortan!” He called from his Grandmother’s arms as she carried him up the stairs to his room, “Goodnight Grandpa!”
“Goodnight,” Ortan replied.
“Go on!” Gemman called, love in his voice, “Sleep tight little one!”
After Leko had made his exit, Gemman turned to Ortan. “So you’ll be after your sister in the morning then?”
“Aye,” Ortan replied, “Just after dawn’s light. I’d leave earlier if I could, but I’ll wait for the sun’s warmth to help me through.”
“Well, Wissa and I will be up early. We’ll make sure to send you on your way with a morning meal in your belly.”
“That’s very kind of you- How much do I owe you for the room and the meals?”
Gemman put his hand out in a polite refusal. “I’m sorry about your sister, consider your stay as our way of aiding in her safe return.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I insist you let me pay you.”
“If you really feel that strongly about it, then whatever you decide is fine. Wissa and I have everything we need, and not much life left to squirrel things away for. It’s all for Leko these days.”
Early the next morning, Gemman and Wissa prepared a meal while Leko slept, and then shared what they had with Ortan before he departed for the mountains. Their visitor was all Leko could talk about all through breakfast and most of the morning. He would get this way about a lot of the guests, but a man with a sword who had been nice to Leko- this encounter seemed to have particularly excited the young boy.
After breakfast, Wissa went to tidy up the room that Ortan had stayed in, only to find it spotless. The bed had been made and nothing seemed out of place, save for a small bag on the bed and bundle of cloth. She brought the items downstairs without opening them and called for Gemman.
They opened them together. The bag held five whole gold pieces, much more than they ever charged for a single night’s stay. Inside the cloth was a small silver dagger and leather scabbard. Gemman recognized the dagger to be of very good craftsmanship and was easily worth a hundred times what had been left in gold pieces. A small slip of parchment was tucked next to the dagger, it read, For Leko, the roads can be dangerous.