Zoiya: Arrival at Windreach
I have now lost the ability to feel my ears. The sides of my head are numb, and it’s quite possible that at any moment my vision could go black and I’d fall onto the cobblestone path dusted with snow. There is only one stretch of stairs left to overcome, winding around a stone pillar and up to the buildings that border the entrance to Windreach. Collapsing this close to my destination after climbing an entire mountain would be the ultimate failure. Proof that I had no life outside of the tribe. I’d rather chop my leg off with my axe.
Digging my hands deeper into the fur lining of my cloak, I keep climbing, staring at the ground to lessen the sting of the wind. My steps leave fresh footprints in the snow that will disappear in a matter of minutes. I barely have the strength to keep my legs moving and am rather surprised that they haven’t failed me yet. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about how in a few minutes’ time I’ll be sitting beside a warm fire clutching a cup of something alcoholic.
When I eventually crest the last stair, all feeling in my head is just gone. I’m in a dangerous state now, and any sudden movement could cause me to lose balance. I reach out to steady myself on the nearest stone pillar, despite that it exposes my bare hand to the frigid wind. My vision blackens for a few moments, just long enough for my hand to go numb. I blink back into focus and shove my hand back under my cloak.
The haze of the snow blurs features far in the distance. I can make out rickety wooden houses lining the cobblestone pathway into the town, worn-down with cracks and covered in a light frost. All of the houses are small, for one or two people at most. After all, who would want to raise a family all the way up here? For that matter, who would even want to travel all the way up here? Idiots like me with something they think they need to prove, that’s who.
The pathway widens into a town square up ahead. There’s a stone structure in the center, but I can’t quite figure out what it’s for. I’d pause to get a better idea of Windreach’s defining features, but I need to find a way to get out of this cold, and fast.
The town is eerily quiet, the only sound in the streets the whistling of the wind. It’s all that I’ve heard since I started up the mountain, and I am utterly sick of it. As difficult as people are to deal with, I’m dying to hear a voice other than my own cursing at the perpetual storm. Warmth, food, and the presence of other living beings—three things that I desperately need.
To my own surprise, I make it to the square without falling to my hands and knees. Looking up, I see the vague shapes of snow-covered letters on what looks like a sign in front of the door, and I am immediately falling against it to burst inside. Lucky for me, the door swings open without even needing to turn a handle, and I stumble into shelter and instantly slide to the floor against the wall.
“Oh my!” says a woman’s voice. I don’t even have the strength to open my eyes and verify that I did make it into a shop rather than breaking into someone’s home. My breathing is shallow, but I can hear it instead of the storm. I no longer feel the beating of frozen wind or the threat of the darkness waiting to take me. And I may know absolutely nothing about this place or who this woman is, but for the first time in too long, I feel safe.
A new weight falls onto me and I half-open one eye to find I’m now tucked into a blanket. It’s heavy, made of thick fabric and lined with soft fur that I am too dazed to identify. There’s a woman on her knees in front of me, head tilted to the side. I assume it’s who spoke before. My eyes focus and I’m able to get a better look at her features. Her frail frame would be more characteristic of an elf than a human, but her ears are round and her features soft. Her frizzly gray hair is tied together in the back, kept out of her view through large spectacles that sink down the bridge of her nose. She prods my shoulder with one thin finger poking out from underneath a wrap of thick furs.
“How long were you out in the storm?” she asks, leaning in closer, her voice scratchy from a life in the cold. She grabs my wrist to check my pulse, and I almost pull away reflexively, but I just don’t have the strength.
“Too long,” I grumble, not even sure if the words are coherent.
“Thankfully, you don’t look to be in any real danger. Just shocked by the temperature.” I don’t know if she has any real expertise to be making such a diagnosis. I certainly feel like my body’s about to shut down. But even just hearing someone tell me that I will make a full recovery eases the tension in my shoulders. I’m starting to feel warmer already.
“Stay here and warm up. I’ll put on some tea.”
I blink and the woman is gone. The first human interaction I’ve had in days and she leaves in thirty seconds. I let my eyes drift closed once more.
I’ve only ever had one kind of tea, made from the leaves that grow in my forest. The tribe elders would farm it as a pastime and as a contribution to the families. I had expected to try many new things when I left. A main reason why I did was to see the world for all of its opportunities and potential. Though after living one type of life for so long, any new experience is scary, even just a new flavor of tea.
The woman returns after several minutes with a plain mug that she carefully sets down beside me. The liquid inside is a golden yellow, and it’s steaming. I reach to pick up the cup, but the sides are too hot for even my numb fingers to grasp.
“What were you thinking being out in the cold wearing scraps like that?” the woman scolds, leaving me where I am and rearranging some things behind a counter. After gaining better consciousness, I have a full look at the room. The walls show the dark boards of cracking and worn wood, though somehow the room retains enough heat, wherever that’s coming from. There’s a counter at the far end of the room where the old woman stands behind. Swatches of fabric woven in combinations of vibrant clashing colors are piled up on either end, but from this angle I can’t tell if they’re clothes, blankets, or decorations.
Looking to my left, I see that this isn’t an enclosed room. In fact, there is no left wall—the floorboards form a ramp down into a hallway that eventually curves to the left. The pathway is lined with multiple other doors leading to rooms hidden from my view.
“Where does that go?” I ask the woman.
She looks up from her work back at me. A chunk of frizzy hair has fallen into her vision, and she runs it back with her fingers, the texture holding it out of her face. “You’re in the market square, dear. That’s where you go to the other shops.”
I sit up straighter, starting to regain my strength. “This is your market? The merchants don’t sell outside? With stalls?”
She steps out from around the counter. “You think we’re going to stand outside all day with storms like this?”
I immediately see her point. Just the reminder of it sends a shiver down my spine.
She picks up one of the piles of cloth from the counter. It unfurls, revealing a simple pattern of blues, but one still easily identifiable as the winter sky. I catch a glimpse of a clasp as she begins to fold it, and recognize that particular piece as a winter shawl. “Speaking of, you’re in my shop. And if you’re not going to buy anything, you best be on your way. You’re holding up business.”
I look around her shop containing nothing but several chests behind the counter, a door to some sort of back room, and a group of empty chairs in the corner. “What business?”
She flaps the shawl towards me, and I’m not sure if it was meant to be a response to my comment, but it comes off as one. The crack of the fabric is echoed by the sound of the wind rapping against the door, causing it to open and close slightly. “Look, it’s not easy being a shopkeeper to a town that only sees visitors once a moon, but we get by. Adventurers and far-travelers tend to have coin to spend, and we sell things they need. Such as clothes to keep from dying out there on the mountain.” She glances not-so-subtlety at her wares on the counter.
I shake my head. “Sorry. I’m not exactly an adventurer or far-traveler.” At least not yet. I slowly push myself to stand and adjust my gear, shifting against the uncomfortable dampness of the cloth after the snowflakes melted. “I only have enough coin to buy me a bed for a couple of nights. Where might I find such a place?”
The shopkeeper flaps the fabric again before turning her back and laying it out on the counter. “The inn is just further up the mountain. You can’t miss it. The town’s main path takes you right to it.”
I almost forget, but I mutter, “Thank you,” to her back, since now she’s determined to face away from me. “For all your help.”
“You can sit if you’d like. Leave the mug on the table on your way out.” She points to the table in the corner, still with her head down.
I watch her for a few moments, before picking up the cup that’s now cooled and carefully going over and sitting on the weak wooden chairs. I raise it to my lips slowly and take a sip. It’s sweet but also has a dark sharpness to it. In comparison to the smoothness of the tribe’s tea, it’s jarring, but not bad. As one of the first new experiences from visiting true civilization, this is something I can get used to.
Sipping from the mug, I have to keep from sneaking glances over at her. Her tone isn’t one of anger—more disappointment. While I find it a bit rude, I don’t exactly blame her. The merchants up here probably do have a really hard time. Of course she hopes that the first new face she has seen in a month will help her make a living. But my coin purse has almost run dry, and I’m starting to worry that I’ll look in and find it empty within the next couple of days. This journey have better be worth it.
I don’t let go of the mug until I drink the last sip, letting the warmth relax my hands. By that time, the shopkeeper has returned to the back room. I wonder if I should wait until she returns so I can thank her again, but it doesn’t seem like she wants to talk to me. She already knows I can’t give her what she wants.
It’s time to secure a bed for the night for a bit of recovery time before continuing up the mountain. I wonder what happened after they realized I was gone. People rarely leave the tribe, especially for non-violent reasons. Would I be exiled even if I hadn’t intended to abandon them forever? If my tribe heard I want to climb to Astral Peak, they would have done everything in their power to get me to stay. The elders would have never approved such a selfish mission, but at least I could have asked for permission back home later on. I may be renting beds at inns for the rest of my life.
I stand, leave the mug on the table, and wrap my thin furs tighter around myself before stepping out into the storm once more.