5 min read

Chapter 14: The Stranger

Saffron makes a new friend
An image of a wooden cabin is overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 14: The Stranger"

Need to get caught up?

The man was huddled in the narrow alley between two buildings where the snow was not so deep and the wind not so strong. Saffron paused on her rounds to watch him for a moment before approaching. One finger poked through a hole in his gloves. He sat curled in on himself for warmth.

“Hello,” she called out as she walked toward him. “I don’t think I’ve seen you in town before.”

Bear hopped down off her shoulder and went to rub against the man’s legs.

“Hello,” he replied, extending one hand to let Bear sniff it before patting his head. “I just arrived.”

“Where’d you travel from?”

“Nowhere special,” he answered.

“Do you have somewhere to go?”

He shook his head, but tried to smile through chattering teeth. “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll be just fine.”

“What’s your name?”


“It’s nice to meet you, Alistair. I’m Saffron. Why don’t you come join me for dinner? I have lots.”

“I wouldn’t want to be any trouble.”

“Not at all. Besides, Bear here has taken a liking to you.” The cat was pressing his head into Alistair’s hand and purring loud enough that Saffron could hear him over the wind.

Bear liked most people, to be fair. But she still trusted his judgement.

Alistair followed her through town and across the meadow to the cottage. Once he was standing, Saffron could see that his gloves weren’t the only thing with holes--his jacket, his boots, and his pants all had frayed patches as well. His face was a ruddy pink in the cold, but his eyes were the deep brown of chestnuts and mahogany.

She asked more questions, but all his answers were monosyllabic, so she gave it up, and they walked on in silence.

The cottage was warm and cozy. Alistair’s shoulders visibly dropped down from his ears when he entered.

Sage sat on the sofa by the fire, working on her knitting. As soon as Bear had shaken the snow off his paws, he ran over to her and hopped up for more attention.

“Sage, this is Alistair,” Saffron introduced their guest. “Alistair, this is my sister Sage.”

“Hello,” Alistair said. Sage nodded back in reply.

She still hadn’t spoken a word since she’d arrived. Saffron remained mystified and frustrated by every aspect of their reunion, but it was still a relief to know her sister was alive and well.

Sage hadn’t left the house since she’d woken. She puttered around inside, knitting, cooking, and cleaning, but she hadn’t shown any interest in going into the town or even the woods. Alistair was the first person to come inside since she’d arrived.

Sage took his visit in stride. She helped Saffron get dinner ready and on the table, same as usual, in full silence.

It was a little crowded around the small table, but they made it work. Bear made the rounds between them, begging for a bit of meat from their stew. Sage kept sneaking him bites when she thought Saffron wasn’t looking.

“Have you been travelling long?” she asked Alistair, trying to kickstart some conversation.

“Yes,” was his simple answer.

“What brought you here?”

He shrugged. “Needed to move on.”

“Running from or running to?” She tried to keep her voice light and joking. She didn’t want to pressure him. She just liked to know her wards, and if he was staying in the area, he was under her care.

“Never been much of a one for running. Just can’t stay still, either.” It was the longest answer he’d given yet.

“Well, this is a good town to stay in for a while if you need a rest from travelling,” she said. “The people are nice. Mostly. Johnny Willhelm is a bit of a cudgel but the rest of the folk are alright.”

Sage snorted. As if she knew Johnny Wilhelm. Saffron shot her a look, but she was focused on her stew.

“I’ll steer clear of Mr. Wilhelm, then,” Alistair said. “You must be the town witch?”

“Yes.” Saffron blinked. “How did you know?”

He answered with a gesture that took in the cottage. She saw it through a stranger’s eyes for a moment: the herbs hanging from every rafter to dry, the shelf full of old books, the fluffy grey cat who knew more than a cat should. Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising after all.

“The people here are under my care. Animals too. I look after them all to the best of my abilities.”

“Even Johnny Wilhelm?”

“Even Johnny Wilhelm.” She nodded. “Even folk who are new to town or just passing through.”

Alistair nodded slowly. She knew she wasn’t exactly being subtle, but she didn’t want him going back out in that cold.

“I appreciate what you’re saying, Miss.” He scooped up the last of his stew, his spoon scraping on the bottom of the dish. “But I’m really just fine.”

He swallowed that last spoonful as Saffron eyed him.

“Let me help you with the clean up and then I’ll be on my way.”

“You don’t need to do that.”

“I insist.”

Saffron tried to stop him, but he gathered their dishes and took them to the sink. She and Sage finished clearing the table. By the time she stoked the fire and put the kettle on, Alistair and Sage stood side by side in the kitchen, him washing and her drying. He flicked a bit of sudsy water at her and she giggled.

It was more sound than Saffron had heard from her in two months.

She had to persuade this man to stick around. Anyone who could get a reaction out of Sage was worth keeping.

Despite her offer of tea and biscuits and even a warm place to lay his head for the night, he assured her that he would be fine.

“You’ll have to join us again sometime.”

He glanced from her to Sage and back and then nodded. “Alright. I’d like that.”

Bear twined himself around Alistair’s legs and the man laughed. “Yes, I’ll come back to see you too, little fellow.”

He bundled up in his meagre outerwear and headed back out into the night, waving over his shoulder as he went.

Sage flopped onto the couch with a dreamy little sigh as Saffron locked the door and turned back into the room.

“You liked him, huh?”

Sage raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“He seems nice, that’s all I’m saying.” Saffron took a seat on the chair opposite her. “I wonder where he’s from?”

Sage stuck her tongue out and tossed a pillow at her. Saffron ducked and couldn’t conceal a laugh of her own. It was so nice to have Sage back to herself, even if only for a few moments. She tossed the pillow back and they both settled in for the evening, each with a cup of tea, Saffron with a book and Sage with her knitting.

It was so cozy and companionable that she could almost imagine they were back home together again. So many times, she almost turned to Sage with some question or comment and had to stop herself, knowing her sister wouldn’t answer.

Her mind was only half on her book while the other half considered how soon she could invite Alistair back again. Maybe he could bring Sage out of her shell even further.

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