Hidden amongst rubbish in an alley where he could search for food unseen, Yerv was too miserable to enjoy it. He buried his hands in his coat sleeves and tried to thaw them against his arms. He shivered and watched his breath form clouds in front of his muzzle. The unnatural sight gave him a different kind of chill. Though his kin assured him this was a normal byproduct of harsh northern winters, it still gave him the creeps.
When feeling returned to his fingers he dipped his hand into a pocket and read the imprints left on the coins he had collected. None of their stories were very interesting (all had traded human hands in exchange for work and been lost on the street), but he had heard of someone who was pleased to offer a warm meal for shiny things with boring stories. Sliding coins between his fingers, Yerv turned his back to the wind and slunk between buildings leading to North Hill Road.
The buildings grew shabbier as they ascended the hill. Few traveled in this region of the city in the fading light, and none of those Yerv passed were human. He kept in the shadows when he could and crossed exposed spaces with a burst of speed. One of his sprints startled a rat away from a piece of garbage it was investigating, but he felt too frozen to bother with an almost certain to fail attempt at hunting.
A faded sign nailed to a ladder announced his destination: THa nORTHe HiL ROd REST
The ladder creaked in the rising wind. Happy voices and tantalizing scents drifted down from the little building, which appeared to sway ever so slightly on the stilt-like lattice of timbers which held it up. Yerv suppressed his dread and decided he was cold and hungry enough to trust the construction skill of trolls.
The stilted restaurant’s ceiling was just high enough that he didn’t have to walk bent over. Most of the round tables were occupied by groups of raucous, drunken trolls. After spending the last year in his new home avoiding humans, werewolves, and other intimidating species, it felt strange to be surrounded by creatures shorter than himself. Yerv gave his wrist an anxious squeeze and stared at the fire set it the back of the dining area, uncertain of his next move.
A stocky troll woman approached wearing a broad smile. A scrap of paper pinned to her shirt read: HaRie. She swished her tufted tail and grasped hold of his hands. “Are you all right, dear?” she said.
Yerv flinched, but did not take his hands back from her. The offering of sudden warmth was too pleasant to refuse. “I have never been so cold,” he said. “I have money. May I buy food?”
Harie released one hand to give him a pat on the arm. “Fresh from the desert, are we?” she said. “Aww, bless your heart! Come, come, this way!”
She dragged him by the wrist to a table in the back corner. It was bordered by the fire on one side and a large window on the other.
A single troll slept there, cheek resting in a puddle of drool, hand curled around an empty mug. Harie grabbed one of his long, pointed ears. “You’ve had enough, Borie!” she yelled into it. “You’re cloggin’ up my good seats! Out with ya!”
“Yer not my mummy,” Borie slurred. He rose from his chair, glared at her, and fell over.
She took him by the tail and pulled him out of the way. “Here we are, warmest seat in the house,” she said. “And what will you be having?”
Yerv sat. “Do you have bone meal soup?” he said.
“Of course,” Harie said. She cupped her hand to her mouth and yelled at the kitchen door. “Snierk! Off yer lazy bum and out with an order of bone meal soup!”
“I’m not touchin’ that stuff,” a voice whined back from the kitchen. “It must’a turned last Tuesday. It smells funny!”
Harie glowered at the kitchen door. “It’s a ghoul!” she yelled. “He don’t give a rat’s be’hiney how fresh it is!”
A few moments of silence from the kitchen, and then, “Oh, eww!”
Harie patted Yerv’s hand and smiled. “Won’t be but a moment,” she said, and then she threw the kitchen door open and disappeared inside. There was a yelp and the sound of dishes clanking.
Yerv pulled the hood of his coat over his face and hunched over the table, trying to look as small and uninteresting as possible. So far, aside from Harie, none of the trolls appeared to care about his presence. They laughed and belched and slapped each other on the back with the same enthusiasm as they did when he first stepped inside. The place was a bit loud for his liking, but Harie’s hospitality more than made up for it. Aside from his parents and the female he was courting as a potential mate, no one had ever treated him with such kindness.
A male troll wearing a food-spattered apron stepped out of the kitchen carrying a bowl as far away from his face as possible. His nametag read: SNiErk. He plopped the bowl on the table and held out his hand. Yerv stared at the rough palm. The troll rubbed the fingers of his other hand together, and Yerv remembered his end of the contract. He handed over his coins and the troll left.
Yerv held the warm bowl in his hands and closed his eyes. He savored the complex layers of scent- the animal-copper smell of chicken blood, the subtle fatty richness of bone marrow, ripe innards, and herbs he did not recognize. He lapped it up with deep, eager gulps.
Warmed by the meal and the fire, he leaned back in his chair and breathed a contented sigh. He looked out the window and noted for the first time how beautiful the city was. Snow coated the buildings like heavy dew in the dim light of sunrise. From his elevated height he watched humans flow around the enormous tree. Something at the top of the tree sparkled by the light of the street lamps. He squinted, trying to identify it.
Harie approached. “Enjoying the view?” she said, gesturing at the window.
“Yes,” he said, and offered a little smile. He expected her to take the bowl and head back to the kitchen, but instead she dragged a chair around beside his and plopped down.
“It aint the mountains,” she said, “but it puts our feet over the human’s heads, so it’s better than nothin’. You wouldn’t believe the price we got for this place after the werewolf packs drove the property values down.”
Yerv frowned. “You chose this as your den site because it was surrounded by dangerous predators?” he said.
Harie shrugged. “It’s all right, dear,” she said. “We don’t bother them too much, though I suppose they do occasionally complain about the noise.”
He pointed at the tree illuminated in the town square. “Do they do that every year?” he said.
“Sure do,” she said. “That’s the Winter Warmth Festival tree. Greatest symbol of the human’s most popular holiday. Makes no difference to our place, but the human shopkeepers exploit it for every last coin they can squeeze out of folks. Sellin’ fancy treats, white and red and green ribbons to wrap stuff up in, that sort of thing. Bunch of silliness if you ask me, but it puts people in a spirit of friendliness, so I suppose it has its place.”
Yerv thought of the new, delicious food the dumpsters had recently started offering, and decided that the Winter Warmth Festival’s place would be year-round if it were up to him. “And that light at the top of the tree?” he said.
“Great honkin’ piece’a crystal,” a new voice chimed in. Snierk had returned, and he leaned against the table on his elbow. “Silly humans. They do love their shinies.”
Harie swatted at him, but he danced out of reach. “Not just any crystal,” she said. “It’s carved in the shape of the Spirit of the Festival, a human with its arms stretched out as if to hug ya’. Love-struck humans like to stand by the tree and make goo-goo eyes at each other and slobber all over each other’s faces. It’s pretty funny. Sometimes Snierk and me like to go down and watch for a bit when we we’re out of ideas for a night’s entertainment.”
Yerv studied the crystal, the tree, the distribution of humans and lights and shadows around the town square. “It is perfect…” he said to himself. He turned to his hosts, clasped his hands together, and bowed his head. “May a thousand blessings return your generosity.”
Yerv left his seat, lingered at the exit and the last opportunity to enjoy the warmth, and departed.
A few minutes later Snierk tossed his apron at Harie. “Got something needs attending to,” he said. “See you later!”
He was down the ladder before she could get hold of his tail and drag him back into the kitchen.
The bone-chilling depth of night could not drive away all the humans. Emboldened by the street lamps, a lone guard watched the city square. The only sound came from his feet crunching the snow as he paced to keep himself warm.
Yerv had studied the human’s habits until he was confident he could work around them. The man’s eyes drooped and his movement was stiff. He was likely thinking more of a warm bed than the duty he was assigned. Whenever he seemed distracted Yerv crept closer to his target.
When he was ready for the final dash he removed his coat and buried it in the snow. Comforting as it was, he needed the extra flexibility he could not access while wrapped in the thick cloth. He dropped to all fours and darted through the last patch of light. He reached the shadows at the base of the big tree unseen.
Yerv ran his claws along the bark, studying its texture, and examined the thick branches. They would take his weight, but he would have to go a long, long way up to reach his target. His shivering came from more than just the loss of his coat. He leapt, caught a branch, and began the climb.
The process of climbing itself was not so bad; it was just the end result that was bothersome. Ghouls were a people of the earth, and saw little sense in taking risks on high places when there were perfectly good holes to hide in. Yerv climbed in silence, stopping every so often to locate the man and see what he was up to.
A new figure strode into view between the branches. Snierk stopped near the man and swished his tail. “Good evenin’ mista,” he said in a cheerful tone.
The man waved an arm and spoke with a growl in his voice. “Get out of here!” he said. “Go on. Git!”
Yerv scrambled to the top and wrapped his arms around the thin trunk. The tree swayed. He looked down and felt dinner churn in his stomach. He slapped a hand over his eyes and waited for the feeling to pass.
Snierk and the man continued to argue. Yerv wondered if this could be a blessing in disguise. Anything to keep the man from looking up when he was most exposed. He would need all the time he could get.
Holes carved in the crystal's base held it on the tree. White and gray ribbons (or white, red, and green, if he chose to believe the troll woman that such colors existed) threaded through the holes tied it in place. He put a hand on the crystal and read its imprint.
A master artist cut it and gave it to the city’s mayor a human lifespan ago. That man gave it to the next mayor, who gave it to the next, who was its current owner. Feelings of great pride were attached to it. Yerv smiled. He could not believe his luck.
Yerv chewed through the ribbons and put the crystal in his mouth, taking great care not to scratch it or chip his teeth. He risked a glance down to see which side would be best for descending.
Snierk, who had refused to be chased off, pointed up and shouted, “Oh noes, the spirit crystal thingy!”
The man whirled around. Even all the way at the top Yerv could see his eyes widen. He drew a short sword from a sheath on his belt. “Stop, thief!” he yelled.
Yerv climbed faster than he would have thought possible without slipping and falling to his death. He leapt down the last ten feet, dodged the screaming, sword-swinging man, and bolted for the mound of snow hiding his coat. Men poured out of houses attached to the shops armed with lanterns and weapons.
He froze halfway through uncovering his coat and locked eyes with a man who loomed over him wielding a long stick. The man’s face twisted with rage and he lifted it over his head. It came down a moment too late on the unclaimed coat.
Yerv dove down the nearest alley, pursued by the cries of the gathering crowd and Snierk’s hoarse laughter. He squeezed through a hole under a building no wider than his head. A crumpled cardboard box had been stored there for just such an occasion, and he pushed it out until it leaned against the hole and covered it. He curled up, held his breath, and trembled.
Heavy footsteps prowled the alley, but the men did not stop to inspect the hole. In time the mob dispersed, and Yerv’s heart stopped trying to dig through his chest. He poked his head out to sniff and listen. All clear. He crept through the alley with his belly brushing the ground and his ears pricked and swiveling. He was too frightened to go back for his coat.
It was with greatest relief that he found Zai’s den occupied. If she had been out hunting, she would have come home to find him passed out in her warm bedding. Not the most dignified way to make his proposal.
Her large eyes widened when he dragged himself in. She poked and sniffed at scrapes and bruises, but he assured her he was just winded.
Yerv bowed his head and held the crystal out. Its transparent form fractured her face into a dozen beautiful copies. “Zai, will you be my mate?” he said.
She closed her eyes and ran her hands over the crystal, reading the imprint he had added to its history. When she finished she prodded him in the chest with it. “You brave, foolish male!” she said. “Don’t ever do a thing like that again!”
He grinned. “Will I need to do something even more foolish?” he said.
“No,” she said. “You are my mate now, and I get to decide what foolish things you can do.”
She wrapped an arm around his back and licked a smudge of dirt from his cheek. Her kiss was warmer than the desert sun.