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His Frozen Fingertips

He was not neglected.

Nor was he a child.

Seventeen, in Asa Hounslow’s opinion, was old enough to do whatever he pleased.

Therefore, he could not be a child.

And neglected? When had his parents ever shown him neglect? He hadn’t seen them for five years.

 Asa’s hands were wrapped around a mug of hot water, steam curling over the rim. He rested his elbows on the table and sipped at his drink.

“I don’t see how this is my problem.”

The healer caught Asa’s eye and let her gaze drop back to the table. Papers covered it, diagrams and sketches of magical shapes that seemed to shift imperceptibly in the flickering candlelight. Her hands ran over a pot filled with spiked crystals: red, blue, and golden green. They hummed softly as she stroked the sharp tips.

“I was just saying that you should have brought your guardian with you,” the healer murmured. “You are not old enough to receive this diagnosis without them here.”

“They’re working.” Asa shrugged. “I was told to come here without them.”

“Asa.” The healer’s tone was at once sharp and gentle.

“What?” he interjected.         

“Where are they really?”        

“I don’t know,” Asa enunciated, stumbling. “Working, as I said.”

“I don’t believe you.”            

“Then prove me wrong,” he huffed.

The healer shook her head and wrote on a slip of paper. The weak light in the room sent shadows skittering across the ceiling in response to her careful movement. Her handwriting was cramped and slanted across the note as she signed it, sealed it, and went to hand it to Asa. He reached out for it and felt the rough sheet between his fingers before it was tugged out of his grasp.

“Forgive me. I almost forgot.”

The healer grasped a green crystal from the pot on her desk. Asa tried to maintain a straight face but couldn’t restrain a groan as she folded the note and placed the stone on the wax seal. She murmured some words and the room flashed blinding white for a moment before Asa blinked and the crystal was back in its pot.

“What did you do that for?” he complained.

“I bound it so that only your guardian could read it.” The healer dusted her hands off. “I don’t trust you, Asa Hounslow.”

Asa snatched the paper, stormed from the healer’s desk, and slammed the door. Night had fallen, illuminated only by the huge silver moon that hung in the sky over Brandenbury. Asa breathed a column of steam into the ice-cold sky and watched it diffuse into the dark air. The visit to the healer weighed on his mind as he strolled down deserted lanes back into the suburbs.

A fox ran ahead of him, diving from the road into the bushes that lined it. He smelled the musk of badgers as they wandered unseen through the countryside. Cows settled in the fields on either side of him, their moist breath audible even from behind the vegetation. The road was like a tangled ribbon, only a winding expanse of dusty gravel stretching ahead of him as far as his eyes could see.

Asa was so preoccupied that he didn’t notice the person lying by the side of the road until he had stumbled over him, crushing the person’s hand with his boot and flying head first into the hedgerow. He heard a yelp, then groan, and the unmistakable sound of someone fumbling along the ground for something. Spectacles, Asa assumed, pulling himself upright. The thorns caught on his loose tunic and scratched at his skin, making him swear through gritted teeth.

“What are you playing at?” he snarled at the prone figure. “Lying in the road! What did you expect?”

He groaned again and rustling indicated their movement.

“Go on,” Asa instructed. “Say something.”

“I was sleeping,” the boy offered.

“In the road.”

“Nowhere else to sleep,” he intoned drily. “The pony got away.”

“But the road—”

Asa paused. He recognised that voice. Creeping forwards, he placed careful hands on the boy’s body, feeling him tense at the uninvited touch. His fingers sensed solid muscle under the skin, warm, vital, strong. He moved towards his head when he abruptly stood up, shaking Asa off with an incredulous laugh.


“Sorry,” Asa exhaled. “Sorry. You sounded familiar, and I didn’t quite know how to ask 


“Ask me what?”

He could feel the boy’s breath in the cold air.

“Your name,” Asa mumbled, embarrassed.

“Why don’t you just ask then?” the stranger proposed.

“Your name?”


“Well, what is your name?”

“Averett,” he said. “But my friends call me Avery.”

Asa felt a grin pull across his face. “Knew it.”

“Asa?” Avery asked. “Is that you?”

“Yes,” his voice cracked as he stared into the dim figure’s face. “How did you know?”

“That pleased to see me?”

“What are you doing out here?” Asa repeated, crossing his arms. “You’re miles from Salatesh.”

His friend sounded concerned. “Well, it’s the twelfth, remember?”

“Yes.” Asa tried to find the familiar face in the gloom. “I am well aware of the date.”

“Check your calendar.” Avery shrugged. “This is the week that I’m spending with you.”

“What?” Asa spluttered. “No, no, that’s next month.”

“Nope,” he was reminded. “This month. Don’t you keep a record of stuff like this?”

“I find it to be rather a hassle,” Asa muttered.

“Really? I never would’ve guessed.” He could hear Avery smirk. “Well? Come on, then. Show me to your house!”

They meandered down the quiet road, chatting about everything and nothing at the same time. Asa kept stealing glances of the tall figure next to him, an unconscious smile playing around the edge of his mouth. He could not believe that Avery was here, in Brandenbury. Though they had exchanged letters, they had been brief; to his chagrin he had indeed forgotten that Avery was to come and stay with him this week.

The light grew brighter and highlighted the top of Avery’s broad shoulders, his nose, even reflecting off his wiry blond hair. They passed house after house of the same uniform design, before entering the more unique side of the town. The streetlights illuminated the road with a flickering glow, tinted by the orange glass placed around the flame. They wandered out into the town square, passing a large fountain and some abandoned market stalls. Asa was just fumbling for his key when he heard it, dimly at first but growing louder. He strained his ears to listen, key held up to the lock.

The bell was ringing from the spire of the old Town Hall.

Other places began to pick up the pealing chime, repeating it and sending the message on. The fire service and the schoolhouse amplified it with their additions. Asa looked at Avery, who had frozen where he stood, panic written over his features. It was superstitiously bad luck to be in a public space when the bells began to ring.

“Come on,” he urged. “We need to get inside.”

With a gentle push, Avery stumbled along as Asa fitted the key in the lock of his apartment building. The wooden door was warped and heavy, but he slammed his body against it and let them in, pulling it shut when done. The draft extinguished several of the candles up the winding staircase. Asa gripped his friend’s arm and pulled him up until the light was bright enough to illuminate them both.

“I’m fine,” Avery panted.

“Good,” Asa acknowledged. “You need to be.”

He maintained his grip upon Avery’s shoulder as they climbed the stairs to a small landing. The green paint was peeling off the walls, and the floor was carpeted in untouched dust apart from a thin path to a plain door with nothing on it but a lock. Asa slipped his key inside, turned it, and let them both into the four-room apartment with a soft click. Avery raised an eyebrow to the teenager next to him.

Asa gestured for him to sit on one of the empty stools at the table. Avery accepted the invitation without speaking, giving a wary nod. Asa then lit all of the candles on the walls using a small flint and steel, which he kept on top of the bread bin. Soon the kitchen was filled with the warm light, casting erratic shadows over their faces.

“Was that the . . . ?” Avery ventured.

“Yes.” Asa cleared his throat thickly before striding across the kitchen to a smouldering stove. “Tea?”


“You know, the hot drink made from steeped leaves or bark.”

“How can you be thinking of tea in a time like this?” his friend spluttered. “The bells are ringing.”

“I know,” Asa countered. “But it’ll be fine. It always is.”

Avery slumped onto the table with a great sigh. Asa couldn’t blame him. Even though it happened annually, there was something about the urgent tolling of the bells that was taxing on a person’s morale. Harm didn’t usually follow the warning, but there were certain years that were fixed in the public’s psyche. Years such as his fifth spring. There had been a hailstorm of rocks and ash pouring from the sky until the rivers and fields were black and scorched. He ran home to his parents, and they sought shelter in one of the deep salt mines whilst the village of Salatesh crumpled into rubble.

“Do you think Salatesh will be alright?” Avery voiced almost exactly what Asa was thinking.

“Yes,” Asa asserted. “Stop worrying. Nothing will come of you moaning and groaning like that.”

“I don’t trust it,” Avery argued. “Erebus hasn’t done anything for years now. Asa, what if this year he—”

“Oh, please be quiet, Avery!” Asa snapped. “If he kills us, then we are dead. We won’t even know that he has done it.”

They descended into a sulky silence, filled only with quiet, uneven breathing. The apartment was drafty and Asa shivered as the temperature dropped. The only warmth in the room came from the glowing coals in the stove. He tapped his fingers on the table, wondering in spite of himself what form Erebus’s wrath would take this year. The powerful sorcerer had attacked them from his walled kingdom every spring for as long as Asa could recollect. He embodied everything that Eodem didn’t stand for—violence, indolence, and greed. That’s why they fought across the wall. Once it fell, peace could return to Eodem. Each year, the queen chose a warrior to cross over and fight the warlock. Each year they fell.

If their luck stood out then Eodem would be safe until another hero was chosen to take their place and fight Erebus. Then the bell would ring again, and all would be peaceful. Asa wouldn’t count upon it. To his knowledge, nobody had ever gone within a mile of Erebus without suffering the most painful of deaths.

His Frozen Fingertips
by by Charlotte Bowyer