Into the Wild
I have a problem.
I seem to write a lot of beginnings to stories, then never circle back to finish them off. It ends up being a tease, because I generally like the ideas, and they sometimes even have interesting characters, but I'm often in the middle of writing something else so they just have to sit alone in my writing inbox, waiting for the day when they can come out and play. Well, I want to start airing out some of those bits and pieces I've written, and what better time to do that than the new year?
So here is a short intro that I wrote sometime last year (don't ask me when), but never got around to fleshing out the rest of the story. I figured the setting was appropriate for this time of year, and I hope you enjoy it!
The depot hall was a long, wooden building set out at the far edge of the city. It was on the fringes of the wild, sprawling desert beyond. It was the last bastion of civilization before the relentless snow and cold to the east, and it was just far enough away from town to make intentions clear as you approached.
The building itself was kept at a chilly temperature, heated only be a small fire in the cozy reception area that was manned by those who didn't make a living out in the wild. The rest of the hall was brutally cold.
The temperature didn't seem to bother Paulos, who sat at a large table near the far end of the interview area. He was reclined in his chair, both feet up on the solid oak table that held only a few scraps of paper along with one or two writing utensils. He wore no boots, or gloves or hat or even an outer coat. It was almost as if he didn't notice his own breath crystallizing in the air before him, or perhaps he saw it as a grand challenge from the universe to withstand the elements like he did.
Maybelle noticed all of these things, dressed as she was in several layers of coats and the largest, furriest boots she could find. Several sheep must have given up their protective layer to make just one of her boots, and she didn't even want to think about how her gloves were made. Her fox fur hat was pulled down over her ears, but did nothing to protect her nose from turning red in the cold. She wondered if there was a way to manufacture something that would cover her nose the way her gloves covered her hands.
Her musings were interrupted by a low chuckle from across the table. "You would like to cross the wild?" Paulos was smiling and leaning slightly to the side so that his feet didn't obstruct his view of her.
"Yes," she said in response, keeping her expression level, "and I would like to leave as soon as possible."
"As soon as possible is three weeks from today," Paulos' legs swung from the tabletop and landed on the wooden floor with a thud. He leaned forward over the table and took a long swig from a mug of something that smelled bitter. "Three weeks from today, and even then it won't be easy."
"I didn't think that crossing the wild was particularly easy to begin with."
"Now you're beginning to get a picture." He smiled again and set the mug back down on the table.
"Three weeks doesn't work for me. I need to leave now, or three days at the latest."
Paul's adopted a smirk that screamed contempt and amusement, all rolled into one package. He looked about the large hall, his eyes pausing at the few tables that were currently occupied by desert guides, then looked back to Maybelle. "I didn't ask for your opinion--"
"And I didn't ask you for yours," Maybelle interrupted, which wiped any amusement from her prospective guide's face. She could hear someone laughing in the reception area, the mood in there much more lighthearted than in the frigid hall, not to mention it had the luxury of heat. "With all due respect, I'm on a schedule that cannot be extended."
"With all due respect, Miss, I've traveled this desert nearly my entire life. Only once did I go out in the middle of winter, and that was all it took for me to swear never to go out again. I nearly died out there, and the man I was traveling with did. So you'll excuse me for refusing to leave until the worst is over." He stood up from the table and extended his hand to Maybelle. "A pleasure speaking with you. If you are still foolish enough to think that you can command the weather to obey your bidding, then I wish you luck with one of my competitors."
Maybelle tentatively shook his hand and watched as he sat back down and kicked his feet up on the table once more. She struggled for something to say, for some words that would change Paulos' mind. By all accounts he was the best guide available, and the only one that could even think of making the journey at this time of year.
"It occurs to me," Paulos said, "that there may be another way."
Maybelle's heart fluttered and she sat up straight, tilting her head slightly to one side.
"The desert is not the only way to the eastern continent. There are several ships at port that I've heard are gearing up to..." Maybelle didn't hear the rest. The ships were her first thought, but she knew that they would never make the trip in time. Nothing would make it in time, not even her best attempts at crossing by land. By all estimates she would be days late, perhaps even weeks late if things went poorly. If she took the boats then she might be months late, if she made it at all. "...and I'm assured that the crew is entirely amicable to more precious cargo."
"I resent being compared to cargo, sir." Maybelle stood. "I cannot afford to wait on a ship. In fact, I can hardly wait on you."
Paulos' eyebrows rose. "Excuse me?"
"I've heard you are the most capable of guides, capable of even making the trip at this time of year, but now that I'm here before you, I don't see it."
Paulos swung his legs back down from the table, in a motion that was as effortless as if it had been practiced hundreds of times before. Maybelle took in a sharp breath of the frigid air as his feet hit the floor with a thud.
"And what makes you--one who probably has not seen a day's work in her life--think that I am not up to the task?"
"You're lazy and you lack initiative. I offer you ten times the going rate for crossing the wild, along with hazard pay for the journey and furnishing for whatever gear we may need, and you balk that it's too difficult a journey."
"Now, hold on--"
"Aside from that, you refer me to your competition at the first sign of me having an original thought."
Paulos swung a meaty hand down on the table, creating a clap that echoed through the room and drew the gaze of the few patrons left inside. Maybelle tightened her lips to hold back the smile that threatened to break through.
"I don't think we discussed price, and of course it's not out of the question to travel at this time of year, though as I said before, it is rather dangerous." Paulos swallowed and made a show of shuffling the few papers about his desk. "Now, somewhere in here...ah...umm..."
Maybelle let him shuffle things around for a minute before piping up. She felt her tenuous control on the situation slipping slightly. "Paulos, I have several matters to attend to before we leave in the morning. If you agree to take me, a simple handshake would suffice for now. I realize it may take you a while to draw up your papers. I trust that they will all be in order. Otherwise, I will take my business elsewhere."
"I..." Paulos shuffled the same three or four papers about again, "...just..."
"I'm afraid I really must be on my way. If you're still too--"
"I'll do it," Paulos said, steel returning to his voice. He looked Maybelle directly in the eyes, unwavering in his confidence that seemed so distant only seconds before. He reached his hand forward and Maybelle took it in as firm a fashion as she was capable.
"I will return in the morning, at..."
"The third hour."
Now it was Maybelle's turn to raise her eyebrows. "An early start."
"We need all the help we can get. Besides, weather is on its way, and I stand by my earlier statement that nature doesn't care one bit about your schedule." Paulos' lips cracked into another smile.
"Glad to do business with you." Maybelle smiled in return and turned to leave the grand hall.
Maybelle turned back around and a piece of cloth struck her in the face before falling into her arms. She held it up, but cast a quick scowl at Paulos to register her dissatisfaction.
"It's a scarf," he said, gesturing around his neck as if to explain how it should be worn. "Your nose is looking a little pink."
"Thank you," Maybelle nodded. She was strong, and generally thought herself to be capable and smart, but there was no way she would make it out there by herself.
She walked back through the hall, passing the handful of other guides and patrons looking for passage through the wilds. They were all haggling over price or terms, and every one of them was being summarily turned down. One might be quick to ascribe luck to her success, but she liked to think of it differently. The warmth of the fireplace in reception lifted her spirits just enough to make it out the door and through the even more frigid air to her room at the inn.
Now the real work would begin.
As always, feel free to comment and let me know what you liked (or even what you didn't like)!