Fade to White
The wind flew past Jerek and stung his face as he raced as fast as he could on his horse, his black cloak streaming out behind him and his baggy white shirt billowing out when the air was caught in it. Sheer exhilaration spread through his body as he tightened his grip on the reigns and urged the horse to gallop faster, the rush causing him to feel more alive than he had in a long while. He was free.
Passing through the woods, Jerek and his horse bounded over logs and dodged through the trees at a breakneck pace, scarcely even giving time to breathe. As they moved, the forest on their right side cleared away to the tilled ground of a small farm, filled with tall golden plants that were ready to be harvested.
A flash of white in the corner of his eye caught Jerek’s attention and he turned his head quickly to see what it was, but instead of returning his eyes to the path in front of him, he ended up staring. A beautiful young woman stood outside a little cottage, deftly swinging an axe to chop wood. Her red-gold hair shone brightly in the sunlight, even though it was pulled into a single braid that hung down to her waist. The faded blue skirt she wore stopped just above her ankles, and was covered with a white apron. The wide sleeves of her cream-colored shirt fell down to her shoulders every time she raised her hands, then floated around her arms when she brought the axe down. It was the most dazzling sight Jerek had ever seen.
Pain suddenly exploded in the side of Jerek’s head and he found himself staring dizzily up at a tree branch gently rocking back and forth while he listed to the pounding thuds of his horse’s hooves grow quieter and more distant. Soon, the sky and trees around him also faded into black.
* * * * *
The first thing Jerek became aware of was a warm wet cloth being dabbed against his temple, then the rough fibers of the bed he was laying on. Swiftly he brought his hand up and seized the wrist of the person who was kneeling next to him, causing the person to gasp and jerk away, but he kept a tight grip on the wrist and opened his eyes.
It was the girl from earlier. Inside the cottage her hair didn’t have the same radiant glow as it did in the sun, but the pale light seemed to emphasize the smooth delicate features of her face instead, especially her round eyes. In her hand that he held captive, she clutched a rag stained red with his blood, but she seemed to have forgotten about it and was staring entranced into his eyes.
“I knew you were different because of your hair,” she whispered in a soft voice. “But I never expected your eyes . . .” Reaching with her free hand, she brushed some of Jerek’s white hair away from his rainbow eyes, leaning in for a closer look at his multi hued irises. “There’s every color imaginable,” she murmured, awestruck.
“Uh . . .” Jerek shifted uncomfortably and sank back as far as he could into the pillow, ignoring the pain the movement caused in his head. His grip around her wrist loosened, and he stared back into the girl’s own eyes, which were brilliant bright shades of blue.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the girl said quickly and jumped up, but she was pulled back as Jerek’s grip around her wrist tightened. Looking at him with raised eyebrows, she then began to pry Jerek’s fingers away from her wrist with her free hand.
At the girl’s touch, he let go and quickly pulled away. “Sorry,” he muttered, sitting up in the bed and gingerly touching the cut in the side of his head.
“I heard you run into that tree,” the girl said while she busied herself cleaning the blood-soaked rag. “I didn’t know what to make of it until I found you lying there unconscious with your horse running off. You must be a terrible rider.”
Scowling, Jerek looked down his sleeves at the sticks and dirt clinging to his white shirt and brushed them off. “Just because I had a run in with a tree doesn’t mean I’m a bad rider.”
The girl grinned as if he had said something amusing. “I guess it doesn’t matter. My name is Tryne, how about yours?”
Jerek hesitated, then chastised himself for doing so. “Jerek,” he said with more grandeur than he had meant.
“Jerek . . .” Tryne placed a finger against her lips. “I’ve heard that name before . . .”
For some reason Jerek fidgeted nervously, afraid that this girl would realize who he was, but Tryne looked out of the only window by the front door and let out a small gasp.
“Oh no!” Hurrying through the room, she pulled out pans and placed them on a table near the stove, alongside a pile of vegetables that were starting to wilt. “I promised I would have dinner ready when she got back, and now I’ve fallen behind!” she said as she distractedly started to cut carrots into misshapen chunks. Suddenly she stopped, looking over at the cast iron stove. “I was cutting firewood so I could cook dinner tonight,” she slowly turned her head toward Jerek, “when you ran into a tree.”
“Yeah . . . so?” Jerek shifted around, watching as Tryne walked up to the bed, bent over and picked up his black leather boots from off the floor, then plopped the shoes onto Jerek’s legs.
“The axe and logs are just outside. Do as much as you can.” Tryne turned her back to Jerek and started working on the food again.
“Now wait one moment!” Jerek grabbed his shoes in one hand and sprang out of the bed. “You can’t order me around!”
Tryne spun around and jabbed her finger into Jerek’s chest. “I can order you around as much as I want!” She pronounced each word forcefully. Then firmly grabbing hold of Jerek’s upper arm, she steered him to the door. “You owe it to me for helping you. Now do it!” Tryne pushed Jerek outside and slammed the door shut.
After yanking his boots on, Jerek started walking away from the cottage, but out of the corner of his eye he saw the axe stuck into a stump. Hesitating for a moment, he begrudgingly went over and dislodged the axe.
In one pile were the round logs ready to be cut, and on the other side of the cutting stump were the logs Tryne had been chopping when he saw her earlier, lying in a small neat pile. Picking up one of the short round logs, Jerek propped it up on its end, then taking the axe he swung down at the wood, but the log fell over and the axe went into the cutting stump uselessly.
With a curse Jerek set the log up right again. “Why the hell am I doing this?” he grumbled to himself, swinging the axe and cutting the wood into two unequal pieces. “This is so stupid! How dare that girl order me around?!” He tossed the axe down and kicked a log, then started walking away.
“Hey! What are you doing?!” Tryne yelled, hanging out the window of her cottage. “Get back there and chop some wood!”
“Do it yourself, woman!” Jerek spat back, continuing to walk away from the cottage.
Tryne disappeared from the window and reemerged at the door. Hands on her hips, she stomped up to Jerek and thrust her finger into his face. “You jerk! Get back there and work!” She looked up at him with hard and demanding eyes, but Jerek matched her gaze unmoving. “Heaven forbid that I helped you in the first place!” she exclaimed, throwing her hands into the air with frustration.
“Why did you? I never asked you to help me,” Jerek replied frostily, holding his head up and looking down at Tryne.
“Because you needed it . . .” Tryne said quietly, sounding surprisingly defeated. “And I thought that because I needed help, you would do the favor back.”
“Oh all right,” Jerek sighed, walking back and picking up the axe.
“Thank you,” Tryne whispered so quietly that Jerek could barely hear her, then she went back into the cottage.
As Jerek swung the axe, he felt a mixture of emotions in his chest. He was angry at the girl for making him work, and he felt foolish for allowing her to do so. Yet for some reason that he couldn’t figure out, he was smiling.