THE FEATURED IMAGE WAS DRAWN BY BLIZZARD ARTISTS.
A repetitive noise, for many who might live outside the profession, but he didn’t care much for it anymore. The long, numerous years of it had dulled out the noise to all but an indication of how close he was to yet another fall. The gentle blast of icy white from his lips, and the tensing and relaxing of the muscles along his arm had become a rhythm for the symphony of professional expertise that he had mastered, one he still valued, for the ease of timing.
The bark began to rip and splinter, unleashing a groan that echoed around as the tree inevitably fell to earth, the spindled branches snapping and ripping from the wooden body, leaving a small, broad stump in its wake. Maximilian Cartelby observed as the snow from nearby tree-branches flocked to dust the long, chestnut-brown tree that had landed down the grass and snow with a thundering yet contained thud. With a deep, misty exhale, he brought the hefty axe in his hand to rest against the gorgeously beige stump, feeling his empty hand brush against thick, snow-dusted fur that trumped his own hair to a rather humbling extent.
For the size and bulk Blackfang had grown to, even Max could feel surprised by how easily his companion could sneak up; the Saberworg had learned to be incredibly quiet, though he supposed such a thing was to be desired when deer and sabers were one’s prey. With a ruffle behind the ears, Max set to work with the harnesses and straps that were to be wrapped around parts of the log, as well as himself and his companion.
The trip home was as to be expected, or at least hoped – Quiet, and without event. This time of year, it was something to appreciate more than most – He knew that desperation drove the hunt when the snow fell as constantly and deeply as it saw fit to, mindful that the snow could easily have covered the entirety of the fallen tree, had he decided to leave it. However, such would have been folly – He was running low on firewood, after all.
The door to his abode creaked open, with a loudness that felt muffled through the onslaught of falling white outdoors, yet like a drawn out groan of deep distress through the cosy and yet reverberated walls of his domicile. An intentional noise, naturally, and as effective intruder alarm as any other up here, he thought – or rather, hoped.
Maximilian appreciated that the log could wait out there a little longer, propped vertically against a brace strapped to a nearby stripped tree. It would hold it long enough until the snow paused for a while. Sitting by his hearth, his gaze fell upon the decorations he had placed upon it, reaching up to take a small locket from the centrepiece. It was made of a brass that appeared quite aged but still firm, his thumb brushing over the dust-kissed surface, feeling the shape of an M press against his touch.
“Maximilian?…. Where is your brother, Lilianne? Oh where is that boy?…”
He could feel how hard the rain was hitting him, not only from the harsh, almost painful impacts that lashed against him without end or discourse, but merely by the cacophony of thunder-like rumbling from the way the falling droplets battered against the rooftop, the steep gambrel promising him a barest kiss of shelter from the rain.
He was soaked to the bone and clutching his bent arms, just above the elbows, his suit soaked through, yet he didn’t seem to mind. The weather had an appreciation to him that seemed lost on his family, though he thanked his training for the natural elements he felt lash against him. As always, the rain carried this thick, wet but welcoming smell that filled his nostrils and caused them to lightly flare and then contract in response to the growing cold. It was almost something he could taste, the air carrying the very same humidity not unlike an aura that he and his people had supposedly grown deeply accustomed to.
“By Genn’s beard, there you are. Leave it to your ineptitude to not even notify me that you were outside.” Came the voice he partly wished to never have heard again, a gravelled but refined speech that seemed tainted with age, to some minor degree. A tall, displeased looking man with short hair and a trimmed moustache, a stark black with the beginnings of locks as silvery-grey as his eyes. He whisked his arm outward and extended his umbrella, taking off down the street at a speed at which seemed mostly inconspicuous.
Despite this subtlety, Maximilian knew what it had come to mean – Another reminder that a father felt his second-born child unfit to even share his parasol, even on his 17th birthday. The hall that the two Cartelbys seemed to walk from gave little interest to the harvest-witch, the demonstrations of magic that his father seemed so fascistic to engrave into his very being all-too-easily dismissed to the thoughts of nature and life, amongst other things.
Max felt a sudden sanctuary from the deluge, and a smaller arm wrap around his, slowly and calmly, an umbrella propped between them. The particular white sleeves were a respite to his eyes, relaxing into the comforting touch of his sister’s closeness as they began to walk together. Despite the sororal bond she had given to him, the two seemed to appreciate the silence that followed, their footsteps barely drowned out by the thundering rain above them.
At this time of night, the house appeared relatively quiet to Max. His father was no doubt in the study, smoking one of his pompous cigars and basking in his self-glory. His mother likely doing her best to dry the percentage of clothes she had been unable to entirely save from the rain, bless her soul. His brother was likely off charming whomever took his fancy, but he did not care for any of that. The stairs were thankfully silent as always as the boy ascended to his chambers, finding them thankfully untouched since he had left, the unsealed bindle bearing most of the possessions he suspected he required.
As he prepared to strap the final knot, the door behind him creaked, causing Lily to see a soaked, pale face stare at her from the bedside, silvery-grey eyes meeting her own in a regretfully long-lasting moment.
“So you’re going through with it? You’re going to the Price Caravans after so long?”
“Yes, Lily. They’re the only ones that make me feel like I belong.”
He felt his heart sink an inch with every footstep that followed his words, though they ached with the distance between them and before him, a yet-paler hand cupping over his shoulder and looking to him, turning the harvest-witch to face the priest. Though she stood a foot shorter, he felt dwarfed before his sister, though her soft smile seemed to pierce into him far more than her eyes.
Taking his hands, a cold metal object pressed into the two palms before she squeezed around his fingers and the back of his hands, looking directly up at him with a deep stare.
As his hands opened, he saw the small brass locket in the dim light between them, an M engraved into the front of it. He let it rest in his left hand, the index finger of his right reaching down to turn the clasp and open it, for a good few moments, before sealing it once again.
“Home is the people you care about, and they can be anywhere. Don’t forget those who care about you, Maximilian. Because I always will.”
A strange sensation ran over Max as he stared down at the locket, an unpleasant conflict of soothing warmth and hallowing cold rushed through his body, taking his thoughts for a long few moments before he blinked at the creaking of his door, eyes rapidly tilting to stare at the barely open wooden mechanism. Setting the locket back carefully, the Gilnean stood to close the door, grasping the lead knob and glancing out the doorway… And double taking.
He observed the figure attempting to approach his cabin in the heavily falling snow, making out the Dwarf with relative ease, through the forming blizzard of icy white. Opening the door to a near-entirety, his left hand grasped the pommel of his sword, then the hilt.
He had concerned sighting desperate predators but this was another matter entirely – though the figure approaching was certainly unfamiliar to him, opening the mechanism into his abode fully as the grey-haired Dwarf stepped in out of the snow, Max rather quick to physically dismiss the strong gusts that sought to burst in with them and explore his home, sealing the locks on the door with such an act.
He listened to the Dwarf’s cold, heavy breaths as he recovered from the walk through the wintery landscape Max had come to call home, before he was met with words.
”…’Lo there, friend.”