The Toll Road (Part III)
“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.”