On my way into work, despite how freaking cold it is, I saw that gas is down to $1.99 a gallon. Totally worth standing in the freezing winds to take advantage of that price before it jumps back up again.
It’s a same it’s still like a refrigerator in my office, though…
“OW!” I wake to sharp pain in my finger and push it immediately into my mouth.
“Sorry!” Rabbit presses her little feet to my knee. “But you didn’t wake up when we tried to call you. We were scared you might freeze.”
“It’s okay.” But I feel warm. The blanket did a wonderful job. My nails are pink, I can feel my face, and my coat is dry as a bone.
“The sky is clear so we should make good time.” Rabbit looks out of the pipe as Frog refuses to leave the warmth of my coat.
Hungrier than before, I finish my leftover half of energy bar and some really salty beef jerky; the kind Auntie would never let me have. As I pack up, I run my tongue along my cheeks to enjoy the shadow taste of the dried meat. I only hope Rabbit can’t tell how much I enjoy it.
I suck on a thick hunk of sliced apricot as we walk. Cold blooded Frog stays in my pocket but Rabbit offers to spare me her weight and plods carefully beside me. With the pack on my shoulders, I don’t think an extra few ounces would have mattered much but I feel guilty about eating the beef jerky so I don’t argue with her.
Following the river is much easier without the snow whipping around but the bright sunlight reflecting off the drifts is blinding. I keep my eyes on the ground right in front of my feet, glancing up to make sure I’m on the right path before looking back down again.
“I would feel better if we knew where we were going or what to look for.” Frog grumbles from my pocket.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine. Marsalla wouldn’t steer us wrong.”
“Oh, she’s your best friend now?” I’m shocked at the jealousy in Frog’s voice.
Rabbit chitters softly, laughing. “Any human who can hear us and doesn’t eat me is a friend to me.”
I can understand that. It’s always better not to get eaten.
Several hours pass before I realize there are no more houses around us and we all start to wonder if we really are going the right way. I think Auntie must be upset by noe. I didn’t think we would be back in time for supper but Auntie must be so worried by now.
When I see a dark smear in the middle of the white in front of us, I get a little worried myself.
It was a smart move to keep Frog and Rabbit tucked into my coat. It’s an even loner way to the lake from Marsalla’s house than from mine and I still need Rabbit to give me directions. By the time we’re there, my fingertips hurt and I bet my nose is red from cold.
Frog stays in my coat pocket while I crawl across the ice but Rabbit puts herself on my shoulder. I notice something different from the very first time I push the new fallen snow away from the man’s face. His lips are bluer against the full color of the rest of his face.
“Looks like we’re running out of time.” Frog sighs.
I push more snow aside, looking for a sign to know what do to do, and see the Frozen Man’s arm pointing down at his side.
“Down river.” Rabbit says, snuggling between my neck and the top of the backpack Marsalla gave me. The three of us look down the winding, blue ribbon of ice in the misty white with only darkness in the distance.
“That’s a long walk.” Frog says what we’re all thinking.
I hear Rabbit sight and I don’t blame her. A long walk doesn’t sound good in this weather. At least the snow hasn’t started to fall from the threatening sky.
“We better get as far as we can before it starts snowing again.” I pick up Rabbit from my shoulder and slide her next to Frog in my pocket so they can keep each other warm. The two of them barely fit so I waste no time and turn and walk along the riverbank in the direction the Frozen Man told me to.
It doesn’t take long before I’m shivering with every step and the cold turns my eyes fuzzy with tears. The third time I stumble and nearly fall on numb legs, Frog begs me to stop.
“There’s some old sewer pipes in the bridge up ahead.” Rabbit has to shout over a gust of wind that stirrs up the snow around ut. “They’re big enough to hide inside but small enough so the three of us can keep warm.”
“You can nap for a bit then keep going.” Frog sighs with relief at the thought of shelter and dives back into my pocket the second he’s done talking.
“But what if the Frozen Man runs out of time?” I shiver.
“You won’t be able to save him if you collapse here in the snow.” Rabbit’s voice is soothing as I walk in a daze, following her direction. The wind slows to reveal a small stone bridge reaching over the river, the ice under it frozen much thicker than further up river.
The moment I’m in the pipe, my body heat begins to fill the space. The smell or rust hurts my nose but my growling stomach is more important and I begin rooting through my pack for whatever goodies Marsalla packed for me. I find a box of energy bars, a collapsable lantern, packets of emergency blankets, mini bottles of water, and separate plastic containers of snacks for Rabbit and Frog. At least I hope the jar full of maggots is a snack for Frog and not some sort of spell I would later.
I put the lantern up so I can see into the very bottom of the backpack and fins a regular blanket buriet in the bottom. I wrap it around myself, leaving plenty of room for my friends, and I feel so warm. I’m almost tempted to take off my wet coat.
Rabbit snuggles into my lap. “Magic blanket.” She nods. “Better and safer than making a fire.”
“Bet there’s a lighter in there, though.” Frog finishes his meal and I cap the wiggling bugs before they can escape. “Just in case.”
I nibble at an energy bar, too tired to make conversation. I make it half way through before giving up and putting the rest away for later.”
“Get some sleep, Boot.” Rabbit lifts the blanket to let Frog scurry under and then settles herself next to my heart. “Don’t worry. We’ll wake you when it’s time to go.”
I nod in thanks and close my eyes, sleep so very welcome even with the wind howling outside as my luluby.
I don’t have the heart to turn Rabbit and Frog back out into the cold after taking me to my door. I smuggle them in under my coat and they make themselves at home in a nest of my stuffed animals.
But I don’t sleep. The face of the frozen man and future telling sticks keep me awake till I hear Auntie’s alarm from up the hallway. With dry eyes, I tiptoe to start the day, carefully hiding Frog and Rabbit behind my slippers and the crisply folded corner of my blanket.
While Auntie gets ready for work, I feed the dogs and start breakfast. Everything is done and piping hot when Auntie is showered and ready to eat. As I pick at my food, the dogs sniff at my clothes instead of begging Auntie for scraps, their noses right where I held my friends last night. To keep Auntie from suspecting I share my bacon with the dogs. I’m not really hungry anyway.
Time doesn’t move as fast as it should till Auntie shuts the door behind her and I let the dogs run wild out in the back yard so I can give Frog and Rabbit the chance to come out of my room.
“Where would the Cold One be hiding?” I ask Frog, kneeling at my bedside looking at both animals perched on my bed.
“I don’t think even Marsalla knows that.” Rabbis says, grooming her ears as she talks.
“We could ask her.” Frog fidgets, his webbed feet not happy on my plush blanket. “She could at least direct us somehow.”
“Let’s go now!” I bounce to my feet and run for my clothes. Rabbit follows with Frog on her back, waiting on the kitchen chair out of reach of the dogs when I let them in from the cold. I carry the small animals with me to the front door and lock everything up tight before dashing to Marsalla’s. It starts to snow on the way there, covering my tracks as I sneak around to the back door.
I only knock once and she opens the door, pulling me out of the cold with a smile. “What can I do for you today, Boot?” She says after closing the door against the wind.
“We need to know where the Cold One is.” Rabbit says, jumping from my wet and cold arms into Marsalla’s warm and dry ones.
Frog stays in my elbow where the snow didn’t reach. “Or at least point the way.”
“Ah, I think I can help you out there.” Marsalla smiles that grin where I can tell she knows something and turns to her kitchen. I take off my boots and leave them with my coat to drip in the hallway before I follow.
“Mama was good at the sticks. She could read the future of things using branches, bones, even chopsticks. If I dropped a handful of pens, Mama could see something to tell me.” Marsalla let Rabbit jump down onto the counter a good distance from the bubbling pot on the stove. “My specialty is water. I can read shapes in the ripples and reflections and it can tell me where things are.”
When Marsalla looks into the big copper pot boiling on the stove, the rest of us lean in, too.
“Uh, I can’t find anything if all I see is your faces.” She says.
Blushing, I back away and Marsalla turns off the pot. She watches as the steam coils up to the ceiling. I try to be patient as she looks at the water but it’s worse than waiting for the huskies to do their business outside during a really bad snow.
“I should have known.” Marsalla sighs, taking a mug down from the cabinet and tossing a tea bag into it. Pouring water on top, she points for me to sit.
Once I’m comfortable and Frog is bouncing on my shoulder with impatience, Marsalla sits next to me with a plate of goodies fit for all three of us; cookies, veggies, and a small cup of maggots for Frog who hops down right to them to eat.
“Go back to the frozen prince and follow his direction.” Marsalla shivers. “He will show you the way to the Cold One.”
I look up at Marsalla from my cup of tea with complete awe. This is what I expected from a witch who the whole town fears.
“Sorry, Boot. You don’t have time to wait for your clothes to dry before going onthis trip.” Marsalla pats my head with the same tender stroke she used on Rabbit’s fur. “Go on. Finish your tea and all of you, eat. By the time you guys are dressed and ready, I’ll have a bag packed for you.” Marsalla tucks that same curl behond her ear. “I can’t go with you but I can make sure you’re well stocked for your trip.”
“Me?” I back away from the sticks as if they’ll come after me. “If you can’t do it, how am I supposed to?”
“I wish I knew, hon.” Marsalla looks at me sadly. “Mama was the original witch of this house; the lady everyone was scared of. She had a way of knowing things. She knew she would die facing the Cold One, she told me never to go there, and she knew about you.”
A clock chimes nine in the other room. “You better go home, I don’t want you to get in trouble and if you’re seen here, you’ll have a lot of trouble.” She lifts Rabbit up to her shoulder. “Can you take her home?”
“We’ll keep her out of sight.” Rabbit chirps.
“And keep close to her.” Frog pipes up from my shoulder.
“Yes.” Marsalla lowers Rabbit and lets her jump to the floor. “She’s gonna need you two.”
I pull my coat on in a daze. “If two witches couldn’t win, what can I do?”
Marsalla hands me my hat with a smile. “Like Mama always said; the answers will come when they’re ready. You just have to pay attention.”
This chapter is short not because I was late or had no ideas… It just seemed like a good place to build tension. XD
“Come to think of it, you do look familiar.” Marsalla says to me, turning a cup of tea in her hands. I dunno why but I expect more after I finish telling her my story. She scratched her nose, picked at her sweater, tucked a fussy curl behind her ear but that’s it. I expected something… Witchier.
Rabbit, after she stopped shacking, looks up from the warm nest she’s made for herself in Marsalla’s lap. “Looks just like the guy, right? And she can hear us.”
“And your Mother could talk to animals?” Marsalla scratches between Rabbit’s ears.
“That’s what Auntie told me.”
Marsalla stops scritching Rabbit’s ears and picks her up so she can stand. “C’mere, kid. I want you to look at something.”
I bring my cup with me and Frog balances on my shoulder as I follower her out of the cluttered living room into an equally cluttered library. It’s like a book store exploded in here with only one clear area left untouched; a wood stand with a glass case on top.
“Take a look, Boot.” Marsalla points her chin at the case and I step towards it. Inside are a bunch of scattered sticks.
I watch them like she said. I take in the ceramic plate, the clean glass, the knots on every twig but nothing happens. “Am I supposed to see something?”
“Not unless you’re a witch with training in divination.” Marsalla smiles. “My mother cast those sticks. It’s the last reading she did before she died. She knew the winter would come and it’s because that guy is stuck in the lake.” Marsalla looks sadly down at the case, her eyes watering. “She tried to stop it but the Cold One was too powerful. It killed her.”
“I’m sorry.” I whisper, missing my mother, too.
Marsalla shrugs, blinking more than normal. “Thanks but that’s not important.” Her hand goes back to Rabbit, who flattens her ears in happiness. “My mother told me the reason for the endless winter is the Cold One put that man in the lake. To free him and end the winter, the Cold One has to be defeated.” She looks down at me. “And it has something to do with you.”
It shouldn’t be so much fun to keep a secret. Auntie always said I should be grateful for everything she’s given me; clothes, food, a home. She tells me she doesn’t have to share her life with me and it’s a gift and a privilege for me not to be in an orphanage where I would have to share everything. But the secret is all mine. I found it and I don’t have to share it, ever. If Auntie knew I was going to see Marsalla… I can’t imagine how she would punish me.
I have to try really hard to do my chores at my normal pace so Auntie doesn’t suspect I’m trying to sneak away. I’m nearly bouncing by the time she gets to bed and I make sure the dogs are so full, they can barely watch me walk towards the back door. When I step out the back steps and don’t see Frog and Rabbit waiting for me, I panic. Did they forget? Did they go without me? Did Auntie find them after all and I’ll never see then again?
“Pssst!” I hear from the front porch. “What is it with you and the back door?” Rabbit peeks around a snow drift twice her size the wind piled up on one corner of our porch.
“Her Aunt’s room is the front.” Frog scolds, hopping from her back. “Ready?” He says to me.
I tug my mittens tighter on my wrists and nod. Frog jumps right into my pocket and shouts in a relieved voice, “Follow my directions. Rabbit’s never been there.”
“With good reason!” She squeaks. “I’m sure the witch would love a new pelt to keep warm.”
Yeah, everyone calls Marsalla a witch. Her house is always lit with odd colors and different ones in very window. She never foes out, even for food, fuel, or firewood, yet her greenhouse is dark with plants. Neither kids nor adults dare to try and steal anything from her even if they were brave enough to go near the metal fence and cross the evergreen snarls in her yard to face the hunched figure whose shadow is seen in the windows. The old woman must live all alone because not a single sound comes from her walls.
Marsalla lives in the tallest house in town so following Frog’s directions isn’t necessary several blocks from her home. My footsteps slow and more than just cold makes me shiver.
“Go on, Boot.” Frog says, peeking up from my pocket.
“Sure. ‘Go on’ he says.” Rabbit cowers by my foot as I stare at the house from the street. “Marsalla doesn’t eat frogs or little girls.”
I shouldn’t feel so relieved when I find out I won’t be on the menu. My shoulders drop and I relax until a shadow looms behind me.
“What are you doing here?” A scratchy voice muffled by wool demands from all three of us.
Rabbit goes to run but the shadow is too fast, snatching her up in one hand and my collar with the other to drag us both to the lightless side of Marsalla’s home. There’s nobody on the roads to hear me scream for help but as the reflection of the street lights on snow fades into black, I hope Rabbit was right about not getting eaten.