Written By K.T. Bryski
Hé! What are you doing out there? It is too cold for you outside. You are new to Hochelaga, hein? I thought so. It is not so warm here, as on your home colony. We are a broken land, rugged. Have you seen log cabins like this before, with wind whistling through the smoke-stained walls? I did not think so.
Well, you are not going anywhere tonight. Do not look at me like that. You are new; I have seen more winter storms that you saw stars on your way here. I am like the strangle-weed. I have wrapped myself around Hochelaga so tightly, set my roots so deep, that the colony will wither if they burn me away.
Enough of me. You are not going anywhere tonight, so let us see how we can fill the hours, we two. The fire is stoked high; move a little closer, into the light. There. Do not worry, your face is smooth and tender now, but a few winters of blasting winds and it will be as leathery as my own.
Perhaps a story? Ouais, I think a story is best, something to welcome you to Hochelaga. If you are to live here, you must know our stories, take them into yourself until they echo through your very bones.
This is a special story I give to you. It is a true story. C’est rien, tu comprends? There was a time, when there were even fewer people in this great frozen forest. But there were two men—one was a big strapping man named Mitchell and the other was a lanky, long-armed man called Laval. One fine day, these two went into the forest to cut wood. That is something you will learn, my young friend. Here on Hochelaga, everything is wood. Wood in the hearth, and wood to make the walls. Even your fingers will go to wood, if you leave them long enough.
Now, our two men, Mitchell and Laval, they have gone into the woods. It is a fine day, but a bitterly cold one. Scarves up over the mouth and tuques down over the eyes. The air feels chilled enough to shatter. Everywhere our two men go, they go with music: ice tinkles from the trees to the frozen ground below.
They walk, and they work, and they talk, and although it is very cold, they are not having such a bad time, hein? But then they get to a big, tough tree—crashed down to the forest floor, wider around than our two men can reach. Well, they whoop, and they start sawing away. Only Mitchell, he is not watching closely. He is cold, and hungry, and probably thinking of his wife, and he is a drunkard anyway, so his hands shake.
Mitchell, he is many things, and right now, he is standing too close to Laval. Laval stoops down—his blade is caught—and Mitchell’s hand slips. His saw slices right through Laval’s neck. Zut! Red splatters the snow, and there are Mitchell’s hands shaking worse than ever and Laval’s head dangling on his neck.
Well, Mitchell does not think—he moves. He grabs Laval’s ear and he yanks his head back into the right position. And—sacré cœur! It is so cold, the head freezes in place, and Laval blinks.
“Are you all right?” Mitchell asks.
“Bien sûr,” says Laval. “What has happened?”
“Nothing.” Mitchell holds his breath, but the head seems secure “Nothing at all.”
But when they finish work, he supposes that Laval should see a doctor. Not just the doctor at Hochelaga: a doctor with the newest, shiniest machines. In town, there is a Ferryman—Mitchell thinks she can take Laval to the medical outpost on Vildfaren.
The Ferryman also has good ale, so Laval thinks nothing of it when Mitchell suggests they stop in. She keeps the Flames in her hearth—it could be any ordinary fire, but it is not. While the Ferryman and Laval drink and laugh, Mitchell clutches his mug, sweating. He wants to talk to the Ferryman in private, for fear of upsetting Laval, but Laval has been standing too close to the Flames. Like any ordinary fire, they give light, and they also give heat. By the second round of ale, the ice holding Laval’s head in place melts away.
Laval’s head wobbles dangerously. It tilts to one side, exposing the red-black circle of cut flesh and a white sliver of spine. He and the Ferryman notice at the same time. Laval screams. The Ferryman shouts and snatches his collar, disappearing with him into the Flames.
Well, they made it to Vildfaren all right, and Laval got his head stitched on properly. That should be the end of the story, hein?
Except the stories of Hochelaga do not have easy endings. On the trip back, Laval discovered that he was a Ferryman too—a Ferryman doomed to emerge from the Flames the same way he went in, with his head dangling nearly off.
That was a long time ago. Mitchell drunk himself to death, the Ferryman left. The Flames are still here, though.
I see that you are looking at my neck. Do not try to hide it, I saw. Yes, that is a scar I wear like a necklace. Difficult to see in the darkness, I know, but I prefer sitting back here, away from the hearth.
Even after all this time, I do not dare get too close.