The Cold KingBy: Amber Jaeger
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Calia wove through the crowded market with her basket held high above her head. The town’s people barely noticed the slight girl so it was up to her to steer around them or out of their way.
She grimaced as she was jostled almost off her feet. There was no apology from the man who bumped into her, no one asking if she was all right or offering a steadying hand.
It wasn’t that Calia was invisible to the other townspeople. They saw her, they just did not care.
But she cared. If she let the precious contents of her basket fall to the churned, muddy ground beneath her feet she would have to face her mother’s wrath.
“Excuse me,” she mumbled as someone else roughly brushed past her. With the basket tilting precariously on her head, she stepped into the mouth of an ally. It was a tiny safe haven and she paused to settle her burden more firmly in place. Her stomach growled loudly and she realized she had stopped next to the bakery. The scent of buttery rolls was heavenly, but Calia had neither the time nor the money.
The town’s people mulled and dashed and argued in the tightly packed market except in one small, loose circle around an old woman. Everyone avoided her as she slowly made her way from stall to stall with the handle of her wicker basket gripped tightly in her bony hand.
The crowd thinned just enough for Calia to really see the elderly woman. Her chest tightened. It was the Cold King’s personal servant.
It was no wonder everyone in the market avoided her. A thin, stooped woman nearly bent in half over her cane should not cause such unease, but this woman did.
She was treated even worse than Calia. Everyone simultaneously ignored and avoided her. When she headed for a stall all the current customers scattered. The people shopping opposite of her kept their backs turned, only occasionally peeking over their shoulders to make sure she wasn’t coming their way.
So only Calia saw the old woman slip in the mud and fall her knees, her basket tumbling away and spilling its contents.
Suddenly unmindful of her own basket, Calia dropped it and darted forward. No one else reached out to help the elderly woman but neither did they impede the younger one rushing to her side.
“Are you all right?” Calia asked when she reached her.
The old woman had used her cane to push herself before Calia could reach her and was carefully patting her frizzy, snow white bun with a gnarled hand. The skin was parchment thin and Calia tried not to wince at the web of protruding veins and tendons running underneath it.
“Are you all right?” Calia repeated. She looked the woman over and grimaced at the blood on her stocking. “You hurt your knee.”
The old woman brushed her off. “Do not talk to me. Don’t you know I am cursed?” she jeered. Her eyes flashed in the noon day sun and Calia almost backed away. Tales of the king and his servants were whispered around town but not to the likes of her.
Always more practical than superstitious, Calia brushed away her unease.
“You are hurt,” she said firmly. “Let me help you.”
“My girl,” the old woman whispered, wrapping her hand tightly around her cane. “Have no fear for me. My master will always care for me.”
Calia took a steadying breath. “I am sure he will but he’s not here now and your knee is bloodied.”
The town’s people continued to give a wide berth to the woman and girl and the basket with the spilled goods.
Calia knelt in the mud and gathered the buttons and threads and needles. “Let me walk you back,” she asked when everything was back in the basket.
“No my girl, you’ve done more than enough.”
“Please, let me—”
“No. Keep your life here.”
Puzzled, Calia watched the old woman push off into the crowd. The people kept their distance until she passed and then flowed in to hide her retreat.
The girl watched for several minutes until a rude shove interrupted her thoughts and brought her back to her own ugly world. Suddenly she remembered her mother’s precious basket and ran back for it.
“Oh no,” she groaned, seeing all her mother’s goose down feathers getting ground into the mud by the uncaring shoppers.