Icy Fires on Cold Summer Nights
High Fantasy / 4000 words
PREFACE: Jean-Jack Laroch, the “French Romanceteer”, returns in a new adventure…
A man has to put food on the table. This can sometimes lead to unpleasant associations.
Take His Lordship Ambrose Wainwright of Exencourt. A noble of forty years with short dark hair and a permanent frown which highlights his lack of humor. A busy man who often travels to the court with a large retinue.
Today, however, he needed to make haste and had thus decided to make do with a sole travel companion... Though perhaps ‘companion’ makes it sound more cordial than it was.
Despite my many attempts at conversation, he remained quiet, staring into the distance, his frown a constant reminder that there are some in this world incapable of seeing—let alone enjoying—the beauties which surround them.
It was a bright and sunny day, at least. Summer was upon us, but we had left early enough in the morning that the weather still was pleasant. I hoped we would reach the forest before the heat became too intense, where the trees could shield us until the night.
About two hours into our journey, a silhouette appeared in the distance before us. As we continued, it grew larger, and soon I could tell it was a man—an old man—traveling on foot.
He gave us a weary smile and slowed down as we approached.
“Good day, my friends.” He came to a stop and so did I, forcing my companion to do so as well, albeit with a grunt. “If it is not too much trouble, I was hoping you would have some water to spare? At my age, I tire easily, and I’m afraid my throat has become quite parched.”
“Of course,” I said as I detached my waterskin from the saddle, leaned down, and handed it to the old man.
He took it gratefully and started drinking.
“That’s enough!” said Wainwright, his voice filled with annoyance. “Or would you have us suffer from thirst as well? We only have enough to last us our trip.”
I ignored him and kept my eyes on the stranger.
“Where to are you headed, old man?”
He stopped drinking, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and handed me back the waterskin.
“I am to meet some friends in the next town. I should hurry, for I must be back before nightfall.”
“You have no horse?”
“Alas no. The poor beast was old and gave its last breath last night. I plan to buy a new one while in town.”
I nodded as I strapped back the waterskin in place.
“Well met, old man. I hope you travel safely.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw movement, and turned to see Wainwright had jumped off his mount. With a few quick steps, he went to the old man and held out his hand to stop him before he moved away.
The old man seemed as startled as I was.
“What is it?” he asked.
His Lordship snarled. “Are you a thief, old man?”
“Well, no, of course not...”
“Then where is our payment?”
I stared at Wainwright. “Is this necessary, My Lord?”
He held up a hand without looking at me, still glaring at the stranger.
The other man swallowed and shook his head. “I don’t understand, friend. I—”
“We are not friends. I am Lord Wainwright of Exencourt. You shall address me as My Lord or Your Lordship.”
The old man struggled to find his words, taken aback by the turn of events.
“Now,” continued Wainwright, “we have given you precious water we will have to replace before long. Is it not fair to compensate us for this loss?”
“I... I suppose. But I only have enough to buy a horse, friend... I mean, Your Lordship.”
The Lord’s frown increased as he looked the stranger up and down. He leaned over, grabbed a pouch at the man’s belt, and pulled it free before the other could stop him.
“Hey!” he protested. “That is mine.”
“As the water was ours. Now we are even.”
He turned and headed back to his horse.
“My Lord,” I said, “this is very inappropriate...”
He barely looked at me as he walked past my horse.
“I pay you to protect me, not to argue with my rulings.” I would have pointed out we were not at a trial, but he continued before I could say anything. “Besides, this should teach the man a valuable lesson. One should not leave his home without proper preparation.” He pulled himself back up on his saddle as he spoke. “Perhaps next time he travels, he will remember this and be smart enough to take enough water with him.” He glanced at the old man and snorted. “Though I somehow doubt he will.”
During all this, the old man had remained frozen in place, still stunned by the exchange. As Wainwright rode off, he lifted his hands and called out.
“Please! Your Lordship! I beg of you, do not take my pouch, it is very precious to me!”
Wainwright ignored him.
“Are you coming, Laroch? We should not waste any further time.”
The noble’s behavior had left me speechless. Though I had known nothing of him before setting off on this journey, I had guessed at his demeanor he must not be an amiable man. But never would I have guessed he could show such disrespect and cruelty.
Grabbing my own pouch, I tossed it at the old man.
“I apologize, and hope these coins will help buy your horse, but I must go now.”
What was I to do? I was under contract and had sworn to protect this despicable individual. Had I known more about him... Never again shall I agree to a mission without knowing more about my prospective employer.
I, too, had learned a valuable lesson here.
We rode a long time in silence.
The trees saved us from the rays of the sun as it rose higher in the sky.
We paused at noon to eat near a stream.
Though I said nothing, I filled my waterskin, making sure Wainwright could see me. Oh, how I would have liked to wipe the smirk he wore on his lips just then.
Never once did I see him touch the pouch he had taken.
How one with such wealth as he could commit such petty larceny was beyond me.
What irritated me even more was that he had made of me his unwilling accomplice.
Should I have taken the pouch from him by force and handed it back to its rightful owner? Though the thought had crossed my mind, it would have not been a proper thing to do. A bodyguard never lifts a finger against his employee.
I gritted my teeth as I sat on a boulder and ate in silence.
Somehow, the man would pay.
I would make sure of it.
He laughed as he watched me.
“Don’t tell me you are still upset about that worthless pauper?” He shook his head. “He got what he had coming to him. As do all those who cross me.” Seeing I would not take the bait, he continued. “I have made foreign envoys disappear for mocking my estates, and you would have me shed a tear over that peasant?”
I pointed a finger at him. “You pay me to protect you, not to approve of your actions.”
He shrugged. “I care little for your approval, Sir Laroch. But I do find your outrage amusing. Ah, if only you knew...”
Wainwright laughed again as a thought came to him. He then went on to tell me gruesome story after gruesome story of his endless deeds. He found pleasure in tormenting me. I decided not to give him the satisfaction of seeing me upset or even flinch.
So I listened in silence.
After an hour, he gave up, and we set off again. We spent the rest of the day in the forest, riding south.
There were no further incidents—though I did notice an unusual chill in the air.
At sunset, we set camp for the night.
The cold woke me before the sun.
I jumped to my feet and stared all around us.
There was snow everywhere, as far as the eye could see.
Wainwright growled as he rose, his entire body shaking.
“What... What is going on here?”
I sensed a hint of panic in his voice, which I found somewhat satisfying. Though to be fair, I felt little more confident than he.
“I don’t know,” I muttered as I walked to my horse.
There was a cover in my saddle. It wasn’t very thick—it was summer, after all—but it would be better than nothing.
“It has to be sorcery!” I heard His Lordship whine from behind me. “The sun is in the sky! How can there be snow in this season?”
“We should ride,” I said. “It’ll keep us warm.”
Without a word, he climbed on his horse and we headed off.
I knew we would come out of the forest soon. I had dreaded this moment, because it would place us directly under the rays of the sun. But now, I yearned for its heat.
As we rode, the man—who had been so quiet until then—could not stop ranting about his bad luck, trying to understand something that could not be understood.
To my knowledge, never had there been an event such as this in the history of Britony. It made no sense.
Wainwright had mentioned sorcery, and perhaps was he right. Unless the fays were to blame. They were creatures of mystery, after all, were they not?
I tried not to listen to the Lord’s babbling and to focus on the road before us. The snow made it difficult for our horses to move, and I could sense they were terrified by this unusual weather.
When we finally reached the edge of the forest, I pulled both our horses to a halt.
“What is it?” asked a worried Wainwright.
I frowned and pointed toward five small forms to our left. Though they did not move, their shape was distinctive enough.
“Wolves!” cried out His Lordship. “Well, what are you waiting for? Go slay them! Do your job. I pay you well enough!”
“They are not moving.”
“They are not moving,” I repeated.
He clicked his tongue in annoyance. “You would rather they attacked us? Go before they come!”
I shook my head. “They are not moving at all. As if...”
My eyes went wide as the rest of the sentence swirled in my head.
“As if what?”
Without answering, I directed my horse toward the wolves. Slowly. My client stayed behind—of course he did.
The wolves remained frozen in place.
Because that was what they were.
The cold must have hit them suddenly.
I jumped off my horse and closed the distance with a few steps.
Still, the wolves did not move.
They had been turned into ice statues.
“Are they dead yet?” I heard Wainwright cry out. “I’m not seeing you swing your sword.”
I went back to my horse, climbed on my saddle, and rode back toward the Lord.
“They will not bother us.”
He frowned as he looked over my shoulder, toward the wolves.
“They truly are dead, then?”
“Frozen by the cold.”
He shuddered but remained quiet as we resumed our journey south.
Our path took us into another forest a few hours later. The trees were thinner here, and more spread out.
“What is that?” asked Wainwright.
I turned my head and saw him pointing toward the east.
The sun was high in the sky, its rays reflecting against the snow, making everything look brighter than it should. Still, there was something there. A more intense brightness that shifted and shimmered in the distance.
We rode on toward the south, but I kept throwing glances at the expanding white. Because it became quickly obvious it was spreading, whatever it was, coming closer to us.
It made His Lordship nervous, almost as much as it did our horses.
“What is that?” he asked again an hour later.
I squinted toward the shimmering brightness and it struck me that, were it not for the color, I would have sworn it was fire.
A chill went through me, though it had little to do with the cold wind.
“Run!” I yelled as I spurred my horse on.
The white flames licked the trunks as we sped away. A lingering scent of burned wood hung in the air as the trees were consumed. I marveled I had not picked up on this earlier. In my defense, it is not every day you get to face icy fires.
We were lucky said fire did not spread fast. Within minutes, we had put some distance between us, but I feared it might pick up speed and catch up, so we did not relent.
It was only then I realized the trees touched by the flames had not blackened—the smell was there, but the effect was not. Instead of charring, the trunks had turned to ice.
“The world has gone mad!” shouted Wainwright.
I glanced at him and wondered if he was on the verge of going mad himself. His eyes kept darting in every direction, with clear signs of panic in his expression.
“We just need to get to—”
A scream interrupted my reply. At the same time, both our horses reared. I managed to remain in my saddle, but the Lord did not.
When my mount settled, I saw a woman in our path. She had fallen to the ground and covered her head with one arm, as if it could have stopped her from being trampled.
Wainwright swore as he got back to his feet.
I jumped off my horse and hurried to the woman’s side.
“Are you alright, ma dame?” I asked as I knelt beside her.
She blinked, looked at me, and nodded.
“I’m sorry,” I continued. “We were talking and did not see you...”
“Don’t waste so much time!” cried out Wainwright as he jumped back on his horse. “We need to get out of here.”
While I agreed we did, I could not leave this woman here like this. She clearly had no horse.
“Come, ma dame, you can ride with me.”
She frowned and shook her head.
“No!” she said as she rose to her feet. “You’re not going in the right direction.” She pointed toward the flames. “I need to go north!”
“Are you crazy?” asked the Lord. “There is only death there.”
Resolve spread across the woman’s face.
“I must find my father!”
She ran off before I could stop her.
“Please! Lady! Come back. There is no one out there!”
But she ignored me and soon disappeared into the trees, heading straight toward the white flames.
“Well, are you coming, then? I do not think it safe to linger.”
I threw Wainwright an annoyed glance. He was fidgeting on his horse.
With a sigh, I got back on mine and we resumed our journey.
“Shouldn’t it be colder?”
We had been riding for hours and seemed to have left the white flames far behind us, though we remained within the trees. I would have felt better had we also left the forest behind. As long as the woods followed us, there was a risk the fire could catch up with us.
But Wainwright’s question troubled me.
He had a point.
There was snow everywhere, and though the blanket had helped, it still felt like the cold should be much worse than this.
Had wolves not frozen to death?
But then, none of this made any sense, so why should we try to find logic where there clearly was none to be found?
“I would not complain about it, were I you.”
He grunted as he looked back to the path before us.
It was a small trail that I knew would eventually lead us out of the forest. I had come this way before. But there still was some distance to go.
Glancing at the sky, I saw it was darkening.
We would soon have to make camp. Among the trees. No way around it.
When we finally stopped for the night, the air had become much more chilly... but, at the same time, it also felt warmer. How was that even possible?
I could not explain it.
It was as if... as if my skin was burning hot, yet icy fingers clutched at my insides.
Despite this, we were weary enough that we quickly fell into an uneasy sleep.
In the middle of the night, a piercing scream jerked me awake.
I jumped to my feet and saw a silhouette running toward me, brandishing a sword.
It took the time for me to grab my own weapon for my brain to register what it had seen.
The moonlight had revealed the grimacing, pain-stricken face of the woman we had crossed earlier.
And, for some reason, she was rushing toward me with the clear intent of doing me harm.
Fortunately, she lacked my training—if she had any at all. While I parried all her blows, I idly wondered where she had found this weapon, as I did not remember her carrying one earlier.
“Please, ma dame, cease this madness! Why are you attacking us?”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Wainwright was wide awake, cowering behind a tree.
“You killed my father,” she hissed, “you savages! Brutes! I shall spill your blood for this...”
I was confused.
“There is some mistake, ma dame, we have met no one—let alone killed.”
Even as I spoke, I remembered the old man we had crossed. The one my charge had so blatantly robbed. Still, there had been no murder.
“You lie!” she shouted as she took another swing at me.
I blocked her blade, then swirled mine to the side, dragging hers in the motion. The force and suddenness of the gesture made her lose her grip and her sword fell to the ground.
Before she could reach for it, I kicked it out of the way and placed the tip of my sword against her chest.
She glared at me.
“Well, go on, then! Kill me as you killed my father!”
I did no such thing.
“Again, ma dame, I insist you are mistaken. Though I begin to suspect we may have indeed encountered your father, if it is the old man I think of. But the only crimes we may be accused of are larceny in the case of His Lordship...” I ignored the outraged cry from Wainwright at my statement. “... and self-restraint on my part.”
I sheathed my sword, feeling there was no further threat from this woman.
She stabbed my chest with her finger.
“Aha! So you admit it! You are monsters!”
I threw her a confused look.
“What have I admitted to?”
“You killed him!” She swung around to point at the sniveling nobleman. “And it’s all your fault, you bastard!”
Seeing he no longer was in any immediate danger, His Lordship had come out from his hiding and was walking toward us as she accused him. He took on an offended expression.
“No one speaks to me like that! Do you know who I am, young lady?”
“A pompous monster, that’s who!”
He almost choked.
“How dare you! I am—”
I lifted my hands in the air to interrupt the niceties.
“Enough! Let’s start from the beginning, as none of this makes any sense.” I looked at the woman. “How about you first tell us who you are?”
She wrinkled her nose and crossed her arms, still glaring at the both of us.
“My name is Luciana,” she finally said. “I’m the daughter of Endhréyac.”
She clearly expected us to recognize the name. But while it sounded familiar, I could not quite place it.
Exasperated by our lack of reaction, she threw her arms in the air.
“He was one of the most powerful dridhs of Britony, you ignorant bastards!”
“Dridhs!” said Wainwright with some disdain.
I glanced at him, then back at Luciana.
“My apologies, ma dame. I am Jean-Jack Laroch, and this is His Lordship Ambrose Wainwright of Exencourt. I have heard of your father, of course. He is said to be a great man...”
“Was,” she hissed. “He’s dead now, thanks to you two!”
“Could you please elaborate? The last time we saw your father—if indeed it was him—he was well and alive.”
She gestured around us.
“My father controls the Amulet of Andeget, so when the weather started acting up, I knew something was wrong. He would never use its powers in such a chaotic manner—let alone at such a scale. I went looking for him and found him dead by the side of the road. His pouch was gone. The pouch that had the amulet and the medicine he needed to regulate his heart. Without those herbs, he could not survive long. And with him gone, the amulet’s power was unleashed—only a dridh can contain it.”
Appalled by what I was hearing, I looked at Wainwright, but the man seemed unfazed—if not straight out bored by the account.
Without a word, I walked up to his horse and grabbed the stolen pouch which hung from his saddle.
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.
“Giving this back to its rightful owner,” I said as I marched toward the woman.
“And how do you know if anything she said is true? She could be a thief, for all we know!”
Luciana looked outraged by the suggestion. Before she could reply, I spun to face my employer.
“And what if she is?” I snapped. “So are you! And I’d much rather she had it.”
I turned and handed the pouch to the woman.
She blinked, then glared at Wainwright.
“I am no thief. And you, sir, deserve to die for what you have done to my father.”
“Please,” I said softly, “you must content yourself with this. This man, despite all of his flaws, has hired me to protect him. I take my work seriously, and thus will not let any harm come to him while I am in his employ.”
She grunted, then searched through the pouch. She brought out an amulet and rubbed a finger against its surface. Closing her eyes, she muttered a series of indistinct words.
As they trailed off into the night air, I felt the chill inside me begin to fade.
Luciana opened her eyes and looked at me.
“The morning sun shall melt the snow and summer heat shall rule again.” I nodded as she placed the amulet back into the pouch. “You serve a monster, Sir Laroch, but I shall honor your request... this once. Know that if I ever see this loathsome man again, I will slit his throat.”
Wainwright sputtered in indignation, but we both ignored him.
“That is fair,” I said as I bowed to the lady. “Fair travel to you, ma dame.”
She nodded, turned, and disappeared into the trees.
“How could you—” started His Lordship.
I cut him off. “The matter is settled. There is no need to argue further about it. We will continue our journey and I will deliver you unharmed to your brother, as agreed when you hired me.”
“What if she comes again while we sleep... Next time, she might not wake us!”
“She will do no such thing.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she is no murderer.”
“Perhaps not, but she hungers for revenge. That will turn any law-abiding citizen into a blood-thirsty maniac.”
“You speak from experience?”
Wainwright scowled at this, but he did not reply.
I lay back on the ground.
“Now,” I added, “I suggest you go back to sleep, as we’ll head off early in the morning.”
As Luciana had predicted, the morning sun melted the snow, and we finished our journey under the fiery rays of the sun.
After I dropped the man off at his brother’s mansion, I hurried to the authorities. I told them of the foreign envoys Wainwright had dispatched, and all those other criminal deeds he had boasted about during our trip.
I learned the noble had long been suspected of various crimes. My testimony sent him to the deepest dungeon.
Perhaps that would serve him as a lesson.
Want to read more of Sir Laroch’s adventures? Check this one out:
And here’s another epic fantasy tale you might not have read yet:
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Text (c) 2022 by Alex S. Garcia.
Header: royalty-free stock image and a picture of my brother, edited by me.
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