Jason stopped at the intersection and squinted out the window. If there was an street sign here, he couldn’t see it. Then again, in this snowstorm, he could barely see past the hood of his car.

He checked his phone, but he still didn’t have any signal. He got out the map from his glove compartment, but since he had no idea where he was at the moment, it didn’t do him much good, either.

He slowly started forward again. The speedometer told him he was going about five miles per hour, but it felt like he wasn’t moving at all. There was nothing but white everywhere he looked.

It was a tremendous relief when he saw a light, barely more than a gold blur amidst the white. As he approached it, he began to just vaguely make out the outline of a building. And he pulled into what he hoped was a parking spot.

“Bad day to be travelin’,” a sour sounding voice said as Jason struggled to close the door behind him.

The building appeared to be a hunting lodge. The heads of deer were mounted all over the wall. A bear and a wolf flanked the fireplace, and a massive pair of moose antlers were hung above it.

The man with the sour voice was sitting by the roaring fire, whittling something out of pale wood. He was short, but powerfully built. His skin was leathery and tan, and he was dressed in a thick flannel shirt with a vibrant red hunter’s cap on.

“I don’t m-mean to intrude,” Jason said, chattering from the cold. It had only been a few yards from his car to the door, but the blizzard had sucked the warmth from him almost eagerly. “but if I could imp-pose on your hospitality for a moment. I j-just need some directions. Do you know how to get to the White Peaks Ski Resort?”

“Honestly asked and honestly given,” the man said, not looking up from his work. “Go back the way you came until you cross a bridge. Should be a road on your left that’ll take you the rest of the way up the mountain. I can’t let you go back out in this storm, though. It’s not safe, and it’s gonna get worse before it clears up.”

“Thanks, but I’ve got friends waiting for me.”

The other man smiled, and there was something dangerous about it. “I let you go, they’ll be waiting a long time. You asked for my hospitality and I gave it to you. The storm’ll blow over by tomorrow morning. You can stay the night here. I’m sure you’re friends’ll understand. Sit, sit.” And he gestured to the chair opposite him.

As Jason moved to the fire, he realized that the other man wasn’t whittling wood, but was working on a bone carving. A rough deer sat in his hands, but as he turned it this way and that, the edges became sharper, more defined. Jason couldn’t actually see what the small man was doing. He would later realize that he never actually saw a tool. But right now, the fire was warm and cozy, and it had been a long day.

His host didn’t seem to have any inclination for conversation, and Jason took his cues from that and just sat there, soaking in the warmth.

The door swung open. The wind howled impossibly loud for a brief moment before the door was forcefully closed.

The newcomer was close to eight feet tall, and clad from head to toe in thick white furs. He pushed back his hood to reveal long, snowy white hair and a matching beard. At his side were two hunting dogs – the biggest Jason had ever seen, although admittedly, he hadn’t met many hunting dogs. And about half a dozen puppies bounding around and shaking snow from their ears. Each of them were as pale as their master’s clothing.

“Red!” he boomed, jovially. “You didn’t tell me we had company.”

“You just got here,” the man, Red, apparently, said.

“Truly spoken!” the giant laughed. “Are you going to introduce me.”

Red sighed. “Why not. Abe, this is… what’s your name, anyway?”

“Jason. Jason Tremain.”

“Tremain,” Abe said, considering the word. “It’s a good, strong name.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Red said. “They can have strong names, even if they’re weak. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Jason was tempted to ask who he meant by “they”, but he was distracted by one of the dogs sniffing intently at him.

“Uh, nice dog,” he said.

“That’s Jaero,” Abe said. “He’s a good friend.”

Jason tentatively reached out a hand to Jaero. He sniffed at it, then turned to Abe and let out a single, sharp bark.

Abe ran a hand through his beard. “It’s not his first encounter it seems. The Wanderer, perhaps? Or maybe one of the little’uns?”

Red turned to his companion, then studied Jason through narrowed eyes. “Interesting. Must be the Wanderer. I’d have noticed if it was anyone else.” He shrugged his shoulders, and returned to his carving. “What’s done is done.”

“I’m sorry,” Jason said, “but what are you talking about?”

The little man laughed, cruelly. “If you don’t know yet, you’re not ready to know. Enjoy your ignorance while it lasts. I don’t know what she’s planning, but it’s never good. Are you going to stand there all day, or are you going to get dinner started?”

This last part was apparently directed at Abe. He laughed, and headed to the cupboards in one corner of the room.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Jason asked.

“No, no,” Abe said, waving a hand. “You’re our guest. It wouldn’t be proper.”

He hummed a deep, steady song as he worked, occasionally singing short bits of it. It sounded like a hunting song, from what Jason could make out of it.

Soon a large pot was hanging above the fire, and a savory smell filled the air. Abe took out a pipe and began to smoke, occasionally puffing out rings.

Jason tried not to stare at them, but it was almost impossible not to. They didn’t feel like they belonged in this world. Abe could almost be Santa Claus, although Jason felt Red would make a horrible Christmas Elf, even if he was the right height.

After a while, Abe sniffed at the air. “Stew smells about ready, don’t you think?”

Red shrugged. “You always cook it too long.”

“If you don’t like my cooking, you can always do it yourself,” Abe told him, but there was no malice in it. “Have you ever had fresh venison, Tremain?”

“No,” he said, unprepared for the sudden conversation. “I don’t think I’ve ever had venison. Fresh or not.”

Abe tasted some of the stew and smiled. “Then you’re in for a treat.”

He scooped ladles of soup into bowls for each of them, including two for the hunting dogs, and a wide, shallow bowl that the puppies gathered around.

The stew was thick, filled with carrots and potatoes, and large chunks of meat. It was probably the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted.

“So what finds you here amidst this blizzard?” Abe asked.

“Well, there wasn’t any sign of a blizzard when I set out. The weatherman said there’d be light snows at most.” Red snorted loudly at this. “But, a company retreat. We’ve had a good year, so our boss decided to take us all out for a ski trip.”

“Good work should be rewarded,” the large man nodded. “How do you make your living, Tremain?”

Jason explained how he was in charge of the shopping cart program for their latest website update. To be honest, he didn’t think Abe understood most of it, but he didn’t seem terribly upset by that. He asked question after question, seeming to enjoy the conversation, even if he had no idea what Jason was talking about.

He woke up the next morning buried under a pile of wriggling bundles of white fur. One of them climbed on to his feet and unsteadily crawled over his brothers and sisters to lick Jason’s face.

“Good morrow!” Abe boomed when Jason emerged into the main room. “I trust you slept well?”

Jason yawned, but he nodded. “I wasn’t expecting to wake up in an avalanche of puppies, though.”

“That’d be Cheralya’s doing,” he laughed, patting the dog’s head. “I think she finds it amusing.”

Breakfast was more of last night’s stew, to which Jason couldn’t complain.

“Storm’s settled,” Red said, standing on his chair to peer out the windows. “You probably want to get on your way, so those friends of yours don’t worry too much.”

“Of course,” he said. “And thanks. Both of you. Is there any way I can repay you?”

“No,” Abe said, shaking his head. “Hospitality must be given to those who ask for it. That’s only proper.”

Red looked pensively at the puppies wrestling for the last scraps of stew.

“Take one of the dogs,” he said.

Jason blinked in confusion. “What?”

Abe looked at his companion. “What are you playing at, Red?”

“The puppies. Take one.”

“I couldn’t. You’ve already given me so much.”

Red pointed a finger at Jason. “You asked to repay our hospitality, and that’s my answer. Abe needs to find homes for the runts soon. One less to get rid of. And it’ll annoy the Wanderer when you see her again. That’s payment enough for me. Might save your life, too, but that doesn’t really concern me, one way or the other.”

As if he knew they were talking about him, one of the puppies walked over to Jason. With a little effort, he managed to climb onto Jason’s lap and started licking at his chin.

“Well,” Jason said, uncertain. He’d never had a pet before. “If you insist, then… I guess this guy likes me enough. Thanks. For everything. I really should be going.”

“Safe travels, Tremain,” Abe said.

Advertisements