The Toll Road
A collaborative story by The Parking Lot Confessional
Kinder paced the patch of light on the floor and worried her fingers raw. Of all days to sleep long. Outside, the sun had already reached the height of its weak arc. Ice groaned beneath the weight of snow. On the table, the wishing candle weeped the last day of wax. The flame swooned with Kinder’s breath as she willed the wick to run its course. A log tumbled in the fire, sending sparks to sprite the air. Her gasp nearly snuffed the candle out.
“Curses, Kinder” she hissed. “Careless girl.”
Moving so as to not disturb the candle’s work, she pulled the myrtle box from the mantle. And reaching long beneath her mattress, the sack of items she’d collected since Remini’s wake.
The week before, she’d lined the box with the silk of her mourning frock. Black. Smooth. It would cushion the ride. If all went to plan, she’d not need the dress again. And if all went to shod, she’d wear the tattered remains as testament of her failure.
With care she nestled each item into the box. An acorn. A sprig of evergreen. The last berries of the holly bush. The feather of a killdeer. A pinch of sacred earth. A clipping of her dead sister’s curls.
The final token she would give of herself. If she made the toll road in time.
Her fingers lingered over the silken lock of hair and she thought of her sister before the fall. Before Kinder’s carelessness. Remini sitting in the yew grove. Remini singing before the fire. Remini weaving, drawing the shuttle across the loom.
The candle’s flame burned down to the nub and died. Kinder watched the puddle of wax cool from glistening to solid. She winced against the heat as she pried up the remains — her wish encased therein — and settled the mass inside the myrtle box. Closing the lid and fastening the clasp, she mouthed a prayer. For swiftness. For protection.
Outside, the wind took her by shock, whipping her cloak and hair, throwing open the stable’s door and pressing her onward. Zobel protested the saddle and bit, but Kinder’s will proved stronger. She tucked the box into the saddlebag and drew herself onto the mare’s back. Wrapping the reins about her hands, she commanded the horse forward into the cold.
The road took her through the village. Past the brewhouse and smith. Past the manse and churchyard. Past Remini’s grave. Smoke rose from the chimneys and the smell of char hung in the air. Zobel’s hooves kicked up the snow drift behind her. She spied the butcher, cleaning gore from his stoop. When he saw her, he made the sacred sign over his chest. She pulled her cloak tight around her shoulders and urged the mare forward, her eyes lingering on the blood seeping to pink in the snow.
Beyond town she kicked Zobel into an all-out run. The land opened to icy meadows and the wind furied against her. Her ears and eyes ached. Time and again she reached her frozen fingers back to the saddlebag, to feel the hard wood beneath the leather, to make certain the tokens remained safe.
Were it spring, she’d have stopped by the river to allow the mare to drink, to pick coneflower and cosmos. But when Remini’s body went cold, the river froze solid and there had only been frigid snow and winds since. Then she had begun counting the days to solstice, gathering tokens, singing the ancient songs to lead her.
Soon snow flew wild with the wind, blinding her to the road. She had no choice but cut through the wetlands beyond the road. The groves of trees shielded her from the wind, but the way proved slow. Zobel’s hooves broke through the ice again and again.
“Sweet mare,” Kinder cooed, stroking the mare’s cheek. “I’m sorry. I promise I’ll make it right.”
Together they wound through the trees and snow, searching out the higher ground.
When they came to the edge of the grove, Kinder slowed the mare to a stop. Before her the ground fell steep. In the distance lay the snowbound Nevins, the sun hanging hazy just above the summit. And below, the toll road, marked by a simple sign fixed in the snow.
She eyed the downward path and her heart sank. Sharp rock laced with ice and snow. Should she wend the way on Zobel they both would certainly fall. She would navigate the path alone.
With numb fingers, she wound the reins around the lowest branch of an oak. The snow grew thin there, and Kinder prayed the horse wouldn’t freeze. She worried less for her ride back home; more that the faithful mare should suffer. Kinder unclasped her cloak and spread it over the animal’s back. Even though the chill crept through her dress, she knew it the right choice.
She slipped the box from the saddle and began the trek downhill. Eyeing each step, she descended. Again and again, she lost her footing and her legs shot out from beneath her, leaving her bruised and bleeding. But though her feet faltered, not once did her grip on the box.
The path leveled out at the bottom of the hill. The sun cast long shadows across the meadow as it dipped its edge below the horizon. If she didn’t reach the road before night, she’d have squandered the solstice. She looked up to where Zobel waited and prayed she’d have cause to climb once more. As she pushed her steps through the snow, she cursed herself for sleeping long, for lighting the candle late, for not standing vigil all night.
“Careless,” she croaked into the cold wind.
“Indeed,” came a reply, smooth as amber.
Kinder startled. And dropped the box.
Leaning against the toll sign stood the one sung of in the ancient songs. The one she’d suffered to see.
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“Something new?” roared Loomis, for Loomis was he named and Loomis must he be called, “You dare to name me something new?”
Kinder felt her mouth go dry. She had tried to think like Remini, playful and daring. Had she gambled and lost? Would she be doomed to walk in rags through winter forever? Kinder squared her jaw.
“I do.” She said the words quickly, so that her teeth would not have time to chatter.
His shoulders slumped. His face grew drawn, his eyes round. “Then you must tell me who I am.”
“You are Loomis, Master of the Toll.”
“And what does that mean, Master of the Toll? Does it mean I am to wander this road forever, carrying winter on my shoulders, bringing pain and sorrow in my pockets?”
The wind blew sharp between them, sending strands of Kinder’s hair to dance, dark and cold. She looked at the box, her hope, clutched tight in Loomis’s hands.
“You are a fair man.”
“I am a man, then.” His face was grim. “Are you certain?”
“Yes.” It came out a whisper.
“But how can that be, when I have naught of what a man needs?”
Kinder’s mind whirled. She had never thought what it must mean, to be the place where the roads crossed, to be what lie at the bottom of the well. But facing him now, watching his breath cloud in the air between them, his clothes both riches and rags, she realized how cruel the Loremasters had been. “I thought I was telling this story.”
Loomis smiled, for the first time since she named him. “So you are.”
“Loomis is Master of the Toll. A master must ride.” A horse whinnied in the distance. Loomis watched her like a dog who knows it will not get the bone. Kinder wet her lips. “And a man must have companionship, so there is another at his side.”
He went still. “And must they always ride?” he asked softly.
“No. The Master has a home. The Master has a hearth. It is kept for him well by the creatures of the earth.”
Loomis dropped to one knee.
“And who is the other who rides?”
The silence stretched between them as Kinder studied the man who knelt before her in the snow. Would he be content with Remini? She had been the beautiful one. A dead companion for a living man? Kinder closed her eyes as she realized how foolish she had been. To bring Remini back would give neither sister joy. And Kinder had no right to give her to Loomis, living or dead. There was only one person Kinder had the right to offer to the Master of the Toll. She opened her eyes, to look her fate full in the face.
“Her name is Kinder,” she said, her voice small in the frigid cold. She had no rhyme for this. “And she is his wife.”
Loomis stood and took her hand in his. She flinched, and he relaxed his grip, though he did not release her.
“You know that the Master of the Toll never takes what is not freely given.”
“Then do not fear that I will take from you.”
Her breath came out shaky. “I give myself freely.”
“No. You are afraid. But still your fears. I have traveled long, and I know the lay of Loomis and Kinder.”
She stared. “You do?”
He nodded. “They say, that he won her love through many acts. And that the first of these,” He drew a thin silver blade from his boot. “Was to set her sister free.” He pricked her finger with the blade.
Kinder gasped. Loomis gave her a wry look. “Before, it would have been your neck. And my teeth.” He guided her finger to the lid of the box, smeared crimson along it’s crease.
A sigh came from the box, a sigh that shaped itself into the form of a girl, transparent and blue. Remini smiled at Kinder. “My sister. Avenge me,” she whispered.
“But it was my fault,” Kinder choked through the knot in her throat.
“No. No. Forgive yourself, my heart. I did not jump in the river because of your words, careless though they were. Go back to where you found my body lying cold. Your husband will help you see what really happened. And then, my Kinder, avenge me.” Remini ran one cold finger across Kinder’s cheek, and faded away.
Kinder turned to Loomis. The box had fallen to ashes in his hand. He raised an arm high and let Remini scatter on the wind. Then he bent, wiped the silver blade clean on the snow, and sheathed it.
“Well, my wife, shall we ride?”
Loomis pointed. Kinder turned to see Zobel standing on the path. Behind her a second mare stood, black as night. Zobel tossed her head, and silver bells shivered in her mane.
Kinder ran to Zobel and vaulted into the saddle. “I thought I would never see you again,” she whispered into the velvet ears.
“You named me man,” said Loomis, mounting the black beside her, “And it lessened my craft considerable. But I still have some tricks. She is fast as a jungle cat, nimble as a mountain goat, and can walk silently on unseen paths.”
Kinder observed the way Loomis sat the strange mare, hands firm and gentle on the reins. He would have such care in everything he did. He was a fair man, and he would keep his word.
Kinder smiled, her heart light and deadly as an arrow. “Let us ride, my husband,” she said, “For what we do now is best done in the dark.”