Tinker shivered in the early evening air, despite his cloak, and strained his ears against the sudden squawking of crows overhead. His donkey, Beatrice, nudged her muzzle against his shoulder. He petted her and whispered calming sounds while he scanned the surrounding trees for the source of her discomfort. It was Twelfth Night and he was in a hurry to get to the next town before the bells signaled the beginning of Carnival and the warding of the winter demons.
His head snapped to the left at the sound of crackling brush. From shadows so black they seemed to swallow the surrounding light, a hooded figure stepped gracefully onto the path. The figure held up one masculine hand in a gesture of peace and the other it offered back toward the shadow. The shadow produced another hand, feminine and petite, which grasped the proffered hand. Next came a bare foot that led to the most beautiful woman that Tinker had ever seen.
She was covered in a cloak of silk that slid over her lithe body and matched the icy blue of her eyes. Unlike her partner, her hood lay open, revealing pale blonde locks that fell about her shoulders and a smile that invited Tinker to take his fill. Beatrice snorted her displeasure as the strangers stepped toward them, breaking the woman’s trance.
“We mean you no harm, good tinker.” The man’s voice reflected the shadow he had just departed. “We are only passing through.” Tinker found no comfort in the man’s too large smile that crept from under the hood. Glancing toward the woman, Tinker winced at the sight of her feet in the dusting of snow.
“Sir,” Tinker said, reaching for his pack, “I see your companion is without shoes for your journey. I have just the right thing, if you have interest?” He pulled out some leather and blue ribbon. Again, the man gave a smile that had Tinker’s hairs standing on end.
“We have only just arrived in this-” The man glanced around. “-realm and have no coin for trade.”
“Frayne, not all trade requires coin, my love.” The woman smiled at her companion and then suggestively at Tinker. “A tinker’s life must be a lonely life.” Frayne chuckled and shook his head.
“Our time is short here, Allura. Perhaps the good tinker would accept our debt until we reach the town ahead?” Tinker blushed at Allura’s insinuation but nodded at Frayne, anxious to be off. He bent down to wrap Allura’s makeshift shoes onto her feet.
“Aye, and we should hurry. Dawn approaches and I want to be safe in a bed when the warding starts. The woods are a dangerous place during Carnival.” Tinker finished and stood, face flushing further at Allura’s smile. She waved her hand, dismissing his fear.
“You have no need to fear the winter demons, my tinker.” She smiled and offered her arm. “Now, let us find an inn. I am weary.” Her laugh caught Tinker’s breath as he turned to the path.
Tinker woke to the sound of bells in the distance. He sat up in bed and cold sweat trickled down his face and onto his bare chest. His dreams last night had been vivid, alternating between Allura’s sweet laugh and pleasurable touch and Frayne’s terrifying smile, his face awash in blood. After dinner and drinks in the main room of the inn, he remembered bidding them goodnight at the door to their room. Now he wondered what was dream and what was memory.
Pale light shone through the window across from his bed, and he wondered why the bells seemed so distant. By dawn’s light, the ringing should have filled the streets of the small town, accompanied by the revelry of Carnival. He stood and walked to the window, searching the streets for the men carrying large bells on their backs and wearing demon masks, for the women and children tossing fistfulls of sweets.
The snow-laden streets below were dotted with crimson, the mutilated bodies of the townspeople strewn about the road. Tinker backed away from the window, his breathing ragged. He turned and ran from his room to find the door to Allura’s and Frayne’s room open, the space empty and the bed untouched. Had they left before the demons came?
Tinker ran down the stairs of the inn and into the main hall. He was greeted by the barkeep, slouched in a chair, a red smile sliced across his neck. Tinker ran toward the open front door, nearly tripping over the arm of a patron lying bloodied beside a bench. Focusing on the doorway, Tinker lurched forward, his lungs heaving.
His bare feet met the snow and stones in a shock of cold. He slid to a stop in the middle of the street, carnage surrounding him. His eyes darted, searching for a way out of this nightmare. He could see the steeple of the church in the distance, the bells calling to him. He ran toward them, trying to ignore the massacre in his path.
The door to the church lay open and Tinker followed a path of bloody footprints through the snow and up the steps. It was colder still inside, the air frosting as it left his mouth.
“Tinker, my dear friend!” Frayne’s deep voice beckoned. “We have been waiting for your arrival.” Tinker stared in disbelief at the hordes of demons dancing in the aisles. Allura sat on the altar, her legs crossed in front of her, Frayne to her right. They were both slick with blood.
“What have you done?” Tinker’s voice wavered. Allura’s smile was blinding white, encased in red.
“Sweet Tinker, you were born this evening.” She pointed to the baptismal font. “See for yourself.” He walked forward and leaned over the side, catching his reflection in the water. He knew now, his dreams a terrifying reality. Tears streamed down his face, clearing trails in the blood that covered him.