5 min read

Chapter 13: Unexpected Visitors

A parade of unexpected visitors come to see Saffron's sister
An image of a stag is overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 13: Unexpected Visitors"

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January passed in a blur of work and exhaustion and strangeness. The winter storms raged on and on and on. It seemed that every few days brought more snow. Each storm came and left in a tumult of wind and ice that cut through Saffron’s skin like knives.

And she was always out in it. It seemed that every time she got home from one emergency, a new one cropped up. There was a den of sick badgers in the forest that she checked on regularly. She had to set three broken bones after people slipped on the ice. Every baby in town seemed to have colic. Not to mention the usual winter complaints of coughs and fevers.

The winter was so bad that she worried the poison still infected her lands. She frequently dreamt of the toxic fungus spreading under the snow and killing her wards one by one.

All she wanted was to curl up with Bear and sleep until spring. But even on the rare occasions that she was at home to rest, she was constantly interrupted. Creatures of all stripes came to visit the cottage that winter.

There were the usual ones: the familiar animals and birds that Saffron cared for all throughout the year. But there were others, beings wild and strange, that she had never seen before. There were pixies and gnomes, goblins and brownies, imps and dwarves. And there were things she didn’t recognize, things with many legs and arms and heads, and things with no legs or arms or heads at all.

They came at night. A new creature had visited every night since Sage arrived. Saffron would hear them scratching and knocking and crying at the door. She tried to ignore them, but they wouldn’t leave. Even if she refused to answer the door, they would get it open and push their way into the house.

Even Bear didn’t scare them off. He hid behind Saffron’s legs and watched with curiosity. Occasionally he would try a hiss or a swipe, but no matter what type of creature had entered, they simply ignored him and made a beeline for Sage, who remained silently seated in her corner of the room.

Every creature that came brought Sage a gift. The squirrels brought acorns. The cardinals brought seeds. The beavers brought mushrooms. The dwarves brought lumps of metal, the goblins brought pebbles with interesting patterns, and the pixies brought glittering gemstones. The other creatures brought things she didn’t recognize: strange fruits, odd stones, charms and trinkets of unknown origin.

Sage still hadn’t spoken: not to Saffron, not to Bear, not to the creatures that came in the night. Saffron had gotten a cot set up for her in one corner of the room. The nightly visitors would leave their gifts beside the bed, wait in silence while Sage examined it, and then leave after she nodded. Each and every one of them politely closed the door behind them.

The floor around Sage’s bed became an odd shrine. Saffron had to pick her way around the gifts to get past Sage’s bed to her bookshelf. Some days she grew so frustrated she wanted to kick all the offerings out of the way. But every time, she took a deep breath and stopped herself. Maybe something here would help Sage, somehow.

One night near the end of the month, she was roused from her bed by a heavy scratching at the door. It was louder than anything that had visited yet, and as she woke she shuddered in fear, thinking of large fungal claws tearing the floors of an ancient house.

She peered out the window, but it was not the Beast.

She opened the door to a large stag. His proud head was held high, his antlers extending to the sky. Bear didn’t hiss or swat this time. He stayed safely behind Saffron, his wide eyes glued to the stag.

The deer crossed the cottage, his hooves clopping on the floor as he made his way to Sage’s bed. He bowed his head low to place something he carried in his mouth in Sage’s lap. She picked it up, turned it over, and nodded to the stag. He turned and walked back out of the cottage the way he had come. Saffron closed the door behind him before crossing to Sage’s bedside.

This latest offering was a crown. Not a simple woodland crown of twigs or flowers, but a delicate crown forged in silver and inlaid with emeralds. Saffron didn’t dare touch it, but it looked old and worn and beautiful.

“What is all this?” She asked. She was exhausted from her constant worries, the night time visits, and the winter weather. She had no more patience for the unknown. “Where are these creatures coming from? How do they know you?”

She’d asked these questions before, and gotten no answers. She didn’t get any this time either. Sage simply looked up at her and shrugged.

Saffron sighed. “How long have you been here without telling me?”

She’d spent years wondering where Sage had gone, what had happened to her, whether she was okay, only to find her in her own backyard. Would she ever have reached out if Saffron hadn’t burned the ancient house down?

There would be no answers tonight. Sage’s mouth stayed firmly shut. Saffron crawled back into bed. A few minutes later, Bear curled up beside her, and eventually she drifted back to sleep.

She was up early the next morning and left the cottage before Sage even awoke. Bear paced beside her as she tracked the hoofprints that led out across the fresh snow that had fallen the previous morning.

They followed the hoofprints across the meadow and into the forest, dodging under branches and crawling over fallen logs. The prints led as far as the centre of a small clearing and then they stopped, suddenly, with no sign of where the stag had gone.

She stood in the spot where the hoofprints ended. The forest around her was the same as anywhere else. The sky, blue for once, peeked through the branches of the trees far above.

“Who are you?” she yelled. “Why did you come to my house?”

There was no answer but the soft sweep of the wind through the snowy trees.

“How do you know my sister?” This was softer and was swallowed up by the heavy blanket of snow. “Is she going to be okay?”

The only response was Bear leaning against her legs and mewing. She picked him up and held him close to her chest. They stood like that for a long time, silently, waiting. Waiting for the stag to come. Waiting for some kind of sign. But there was none.

When she couldn’t stand the cold any more, she went home and started mixing a new healing potion for her den of sick badgers. There was work to be done.

No creatures visited the cottage that night. Saffron slept the whole night through and in the morning, the sun was shining.

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Katie Conrad is a speculative fiction writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You can find her on twitter or instagram.