The Toll Road (Part 2)

As this is the second part in a longer piece, I recommend reading Part 1 first if you haven’t already. And now I pick up where Ms. Nichols left off…

Kinder hurried to retrieve the box, but not fast enough. The man already had it in his hand, brushing the flakes of snow from the cover. His finger traced the knotted design carved into the lid and lifted the clasp.

“You know,” he said, returning the clasp without opening it, “there is nothing keeping me in this place after the sun falls below the mountain’s peaks.”

She turned to the west at his words. The sun, now less gold than red, almost touched the top of the peak. She looked back to the man. Poorly dressed, he resembled a man tossed out in the cold. Pants held in place with rope, shirt threadbare and loose on his shoulders, and gloves missing the tips of the fingers.

Kinder wondered if this crossing was a punishment of sorts for him. Who could he have ired to forever collect the toll?

Kinder shook her head. These were the things Remini would have wondered on. Kinder blinked back tears that threatened to freeze to her lashes. She knew she needed to start with his name. In the different tales and songs, they all began with his name.

He held up a hand.

“Before you begin, know that once you speak my name, we cannot stop till the toll is paid and naught of anything else.” He glanced at the falling sun and back. “We still have time for pleasantries.”

The rose in his cheeks and smile on his lips contrasted the dark in her heart. There was nothing pleasant to share. The days were gray as her sister’s skin. But if pleasantries was what he wanted, so be it. Although, she found it hard to keep the sarcasm from bleeding through her words.

“For winter, the weather is quite pleasant today. Don’t you think?”

The man’s smile faltered a bit.

“I actually find it rather gray. Tell me of your sister.”

His words slapped her harder than the cold. Of course this was why she was here, but what did he need to know about her? This was her burden. No one wanted to bear it with her in town. Why should she now share it with him now? What would he care for the way she twirled the same lock of hair until it had its own curl, bouncing against the rest of her straight tawny hair? Remini was so unaware that she did it, Kinder believed she even did it in her sleep.

“She is no longer with me, and I care not talk—”

“Did a day ever go by that she did not twist her hair in that single cute curl?”

She held her breath. Did he know what she was thinking?

“You really left me no choice. If you’re not willing to speak for the heart, I had to listen to it for myself. Now we can continue this way and squander what little time you have left, or we can try this again.”

He paused as she released her breath in a white cloud that drifted and spread to nothing.

“Please,” he insisted, “tell me of your sister.”

She didn’t know what to say.

“I really don’t know. To be honest, she would’ve been the better of us to be here. She’d have a list of question that would only double with ever answer you gave.”

The smile came back to his face.

“Well then, what would she ask of me?”

“She could be quite silly. I’m not sure it would be of much interest to you.”

“No matter how silly. Please ask. For Remini.”

At the sound of her name a tear fell free. She tried to wipe it before it froze. Instead she scratched her cheek as it turned to ice. Regardless she smiled and suppressed a light laugh.

“She’d most definitely go on and on about the songs. She tries to learn them all. From the ones about—”

He raised a finger and cautioned, “No names. Not yet.”

“Right. Well, she would want to know how many song have been sung about you.”

As the words left her, she felt a fluttering. If Remini were here, her hand would be clasped in anticipation for the answer. Maybe even learn a new song to sing while she worked the loom.

The man’s eyes brightened. His hand waxed and waned over the carved myrtle box as if it were a pet he had expected to start purring.

“Truth be told, I don’t know. There are so many with variation forever being added. I believe I’d have better luck counting the fallen snow.”

“Oh.”

She was sure the disappointment in her voice would have matched Remini’s were she here.

“I can tell you this, though,” he quickly added. “I have more songs told of me here than my other incarnations elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere?”

“Across the river to the south, the mountains in the west, and the dry lands in east.”

“How do they know of the Toll Road?”

“They don’t.” His smile deepened. “They know about the Cliff’s End, the Gallows Tree, or the Blind Well. There are a few songs that are only known by a single family, passed down from mother to daughter or father to son. I know of one song that will be forgotten to this world once its writer finally passes.”

“The Blind Well? Gallows… I know those songs! But those are about—”

He started to protest.

“I know, I know. No names yet. Some of those songs are awful. My mother smacked Remini for reciting the Gallows Tree song. And the Cliff’s End is sung every spring to rejoice. Those songs are not about the same people.”

“I am who I need to be once my name is called.”

He glanced up and Kinder followed his gaze. The sun burned red as its last remaining rays shone over the mountain top. Her time was almost up.

“It is time to name me, Kinder, sister of Remini.”

He handed back her box of tokens for the Toll. She saw again his fingerless gloves. They weren’t ragged at all. The knot of rope at his waist had the shine of gold to it, and his shirt was not so much threadbare as it was delicate and smooth like virgin silk. This man was not at all what he first appeared to be.

She took ahold of the myrtle box. Did she have to name him as the Man of the Toll? She sure wouldn’t utter the name from the Gallows Tree, nor did she know enough about the other songs to dare invoke them.

Kinder was done dealing with death. She longed for rebirth. She stood up straight and looked the man in the eyes.

“I call upon you, Loomis, Master of the Toll.”

His eyebrows arched.

“Loomis? I’ve never been called such.”

“As I’m living something new, I feel I might be on better ground if you were as well.”

To be continued…

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