The Toll Road (Part 1)

This week, we’re writing a round robin story with a wintery-holiday spin. Here is the first installment. S.C. Green will post part two on Wednesday, and the conclusion will be posted on Friday by Amy McLane. We hope you enjoy it. Thanks for reading and happy holidays to you and yours!

The Toll Road

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.

To be continued…