`Grey for as far as the eye can see. Grey sky. Grey snow. Grey buildings. And grey faces. The snow spiraled around Alex’s feet as she trudged along, attempting to ignore the chill slowly seeping into her bones and the gloom clouding her mind with thoughts just as grey as the eyes peering at her from under thick fur cloaks. The wind tugged at her clothes as though it wished to pull her along with it into the blank unknown surrounding her.
Wrapping her arms tighter around her chest, she turned to the hulking man marching beside her, tilting her head up so as to see his heavily scarred face. “How long until we get there?” She asked, hoping his answer would fall somewhere in the single digits.
“About three more hours.” He said, then cast her a sideways glance, “If we don’t have to stop for muffins… again.”
“Hey!” She pouted “they were fresh out of the oven and you ate just as many as I did.”
“Yes. However I was still able to move afterwards.”
“Not my fault you’re twice my size.” Alex huffed and once again faced the seemingly endless road, dejected. She didn’t much like when Stone was right. She cast a glance at him, his bulky arms thicker than her thigh and covered in dark tattoos of spiraling words she did not recognize and deep scars from the many battles the older man had the misfortune of being a part of, some of which Alex had been there for. His bare, dark skin was stretched tight against his muscles in his chest; apparently he didn’t mind the cold. Her eyes eventually found their way up to his face. Though he had never told her, Alex had always assumed that he had received his nickname because of his stony features. His nose had clearly been broken more than once, for it was bent at an odd angle in the middle. His right eye was white with blindness and his bottom lip pierced with a gold stud, possibly the only thing he wouldn’t pawn off. His expression was hard, cold even. Had been since she met him.
“What?” Alex started at his sudden annoyance.
“What?” She shrugged, turning her head to gaze at. Uhg. Not that.
Shaking his head, Stone turned his attention back to the road.
For the next hour Alex managed to entertain herself by guessing whether people were male or female by the way they walked. But that soon got quite boring.
He ignored her. “Stone.” And again. “STONE!”
His shoulders tensed and he visibly counted to ten before answering her. ‘What do you need Alex?”
“Tell me a story.” She bounced in front of him, letting her numb arms fall to her sides.
Alex stopped dead in her tracks and pouted. “Why not?”
“Last time I told you a story you refused to wear pants for a week.”
“That’s only because you said that spiders liked to nest in pants!” She whined, tilting her head to the side and giving him her best puppy dog look, knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist it.”
“Don’t.” He warned, focusing on her with his good eye.
“Pleeeease?” She jutted her bottom lip out ever so slightly.
Stone reached up with his massive hand and rubbed his temples. “If you listen quietly and continue moving… I will tell you a story.”
“Okay!” She beamed.
“Silent.” He repeated. Her smile faltered slightly and she nodded, beginning to once again, walk along the grey cobblestones that would undoubtedly lead to a grey city.
Stones face went blank as he presumably attempted to recall a story worth telling.
“When I was a boy, I had a good friend named William…”
It was the last day of July, and it was hot as a pig in an oven. The people of my village had all retreated to the shade of the trees or to the cool water of the nearby river. Nobody worked that day, all chores had been abandoned, the heat making it impossible to wipe the sweat off of your brow without becoming exhausted. Will and I were sitting in one of the larger trees, drunk on love as we watched the local girls swim in the river below us. They were much older than us two, but that did not stop us from peering through the leaves, taking extra care not to be seen. Will had discovered this spot the year before, and immediately ran to tell me he knew where the women swam. It changed our lives. What had been a mystery for so long had suddenly been made available to us to view at our own free will. We were fascinated with how graceful these creatures were, so different from the boys of the village. Smoother, and they moved as though they were part of the river, themselves, flowing with the grace of mermaids. William had taken a particular interest in one of the more bountiful of the group. A tall girl with raven black hair falling all the way to the small of her back, I believe her name was Nettie. William was barely able to speak whenever she was near, let alone when she was nude.
On the day of the extreme heat, Nettie was once again with her friends in the river. Thus why we were in the tree. Nettie had just let her hair down and Will was leaning as far as he could, so as to see more. However he would come to regret this. For as he was leaning over, little did he know, that thousands of ants had been crawling on the branch that he had gripped onto. The look on his face when they crawled up his arm was that of utter horror. He spun around to try to swipe the ants off of him, but lost his balance in the process. I reached out to grab him, however I was too late, he plummeted into the river below, startling the women into a screaming, kicking, frenzy. William burst out of the water, gasping for breath and reaching out to grab the closest thing to him, which just so happened to be Nettie. She screamed and batted at him with both hands, splashing and clawing his face until he released her. Eventually all of the women had fled from the river and up the trail, back towards the village. By this time I was laughing hard enough that I myself almost fell out of that tree. William sat on the edge of the bank, utterly deflated, his smile long gone, and soaked from head to toe.
Of course he laughed it off later, but he could never quite meet the eyes of Nettie again. That is, until she approached him on his seventeenth name day, four years later.
“Happy name-day Will.” She had said, and then leaned in to whisper something in his ear. He never did tell me what she had said to him. But the smile that spread all the way across his face was one I hadn’t seen since his discovery of that tree. That **** tree.
Stone finished his story with a smile that only comes with fond memories. His face taking on a softer look than it normally presented.
Alex looked up at Stone disappointedly, “What? No ****** tavern brawls? No saving kittens from fires?”
“Not this time” Stone replied, messing with the jagged hair atop his smaller counterparts head. He watched her attempt to ‘fix’ it, out of the corner of his eye. Alex had cut most of her blonde locks off after a particularly drunk man had commented on what a pretty girl she was. That very night she took her dagger and chopped off as much as it as she could, giving her a rather ragged look. This caused her slightly larger than normal ears to peak out of the uneven strands. That with her bright green eyes and freckled nose made for an interesting look. People stared at her. If there was anything that Alex hated it was people starring. Or spiders. She hated spiders.
After Alex was satisfied with her newly repositioned hair she turned to stone, not impressed. “That’s no fair, I can’t reach your hair…” she turned her head away slightly and mumbled “or lack thereof.”
“I heard that.”
“Heard what?” She looked at him, blinking innocently.
Stone sighed for what Alex guessed to be the millionth time in the past hour. “You will be the death of me.”
“Yeah but that death would be a ****** one with fire and stuff.” She bounced ahead and picked up some snow, molding it into a ball. “And I’ll be all like ‘Nooooooo!’ and fall to my knees yelling ‘Take me instead!’ and then I would avenge you like nobody has ever been avenged.” She said proudly, examining her snowball.
“What makes you so sure you will outlive me?” Stone inquired, raising an eyebrow.
“You said it yourself, I’ll be the death of you.” She smiled, “I would probably make you stop to get some muffins or somethin’ but bandits have really set up the delicious treats as a trap, and would drop down from the roof of the bakery. They would probably have masks too.” She covered her face, peeking through her fingers at him.
“Just how often do you think about how my death will play out?”
“Whenever I’m mad at you.” She shrugged.
“Ah.” He said. “That often.”
After what seemed like an eternity, the rare house and inn eventually blended into the city they had so long been trying to reach. The grey buildings lining either side of the cobbled street, looming above, looking much like the prison back where Alex had grown up. There were more people here, just as boring as the ones in the countryside, but at least it wasn’t silent. Alex could hear quiet bickering in the alley between two rather large buildings, and the distant sound of dogs barking. The glow of a fire in one of the houses made the cold all the more apparent to her, she rubbed her arms but it would seem that she has lost almost all feeling. Alex watched a group of young locals, probably around her age, chatter excitedly, gesturing this way and that. She felt a pang of longing resonate through her chest as she silently envied their situation as compared to hers. Sighing, she turned away, thoughts now just as gloomy as the clouds above. Stones eye was just as cold as the snow beneath their feet, scoping the area for any signs of danger. He was like that. Very serious when in a crowd. It made him very difficult to bring in a tavern.
“How long until we get to the inn?” She could smell muffins. **** you, whoever you are.
“Not long.” Stone replied. “Its near the palace.”
“Oh so we get a good view of the sparkle-nosed nobles. Great.”
“It’s the cheapest inn in this city whose doors lock.” He shrugged
“Right. ‘Cause we have to worry about somebody stealing our things.” Alex retorted, gesturing to the rather dismal bag Stone was carrying and the raggedy clothing they had both neglected to clean for who knows how long.
Stone looked slightly offended by this. “I would rather feel secure about where I leave my belongings.”
“Wouldn’t want anybody to steal your pet rock, would we?”
“It is not a rock.”
“It’s a rock.”
“It is a gemstone.”
“That is not a word.”
“You’re not a word.” Alex quipped, childishly sticking her tongue out at the older man. Turning back around, Alex was suddenly bombarded by an older woman, her boney hand grasping her arm tightly.
“You must go back home child. This is no place for you.” She rasped hurriedly. “It is not safe for our kind here.” The woman’s dark eyes were not looking at Alex, but instead at something just over her shoulder. Her oversized, raggedy, clothes hung from her body, swaying as she stepped closer.
Alex yanked out of the surprisingly strong grip, “Get off” She bit out as she backed away from the woman, whose eyes were wide as the pretty plates nobles ate off of. “What do ya mean ‘our kind’?” Alex spat, rubbing her arm.
“I beg you, heed my words. Doom falls upon those of us who journey too close to those that would have us hang’d.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about”
Stone began to lead her away from the woman, clearly uncomfortable with the situation. Eventually the frightened lady disappeared into the crowd.
“What was all of that about?” She asked, disturbed by the situation.
“This is a strange city Alex.” Stone warned, quickening his pace, “It’s best not to question things.”
It was then that Alex looked up to find the iron gates of the palace straight ahead, the dark and twisted metal adding to the gloom of this place. This definitely wasn’t somewhere she would like to revisit. Stone veered to the left and up to a red door. Alex smiled at the brightness of it, she had started to think that perhaps she had miraculously become blind to all colour.
“This is it.” Stone stated, “Our home for the next three weeks.” He opened the door and Alex was assaulted with the stench of ****, ale, and possibly vomit.