The stranger said I owed him a favour. I figured that was fair, since he'd certainly saved my life. Five minutes longer and I would have died in the freezing water.
I found I couldn't speak right away, and it wasn't just because of the way my teeth were chattering, either. Something about staring death in the face had made my mind go all fuzzy. The stranger didn't seem to expect an answer right away. Once he had the fire burning well, he went off to see to his horse, leaving me to shake and shiver and steam on my own. I was already wrapped in every blanket he had.
It was probably half an hour before he came back, and by then I was able to speak. He was leading his horse, and it seemed that he wasn't planning on spending the night here, after all. I gave him my name and asked for his. He considered for a bit, while he took his blankets back and folded them, and then he said, "Tyler." I wondered how many names he had thought up and discarded, and how he had finally decided on that one.
"Well, Tyler," I said. "I acknowledge that I owe you a favour. I'm greatly in your debt. What is it that you want of me?"
He packed the blankets back on his horse, and didn't speak again until he was ready to go. "You should spend the night here. You aren't really warm yet. Don't leave the fire."
I agreed heartily. He swung into the saddle and looked down at me. "Go south tomorrow morning. At the next town, ask for Woodbridge."
"Why? What am I... Who's Woodbridge?" I asked. "Or is it a place?" By then he was almost out of earshot, so I called after him, "I'll do it!"
I spent the night there by the stream, glad to be alive, and in the morning I walked south.
It was snowing lightly, but the next town was probably an unprepossessing place even when the weather was good. There was a small inn, the kind travellers don't stop at if they have any other option. A general air of neglect and disrepair, and inside, thick layers of grease on all the tables.
The tables were occupied, though. Despite the early hour, a half dozen people were drinking. They all looked at me as I entered. I'd lost all my possessions in the stream, so I wasn't a very interesting sight. I supposed that nothing interesting ever happened in this town.
I didn't know if Woodbridge were a place or a person, so: "I'm looking for Woodbridge," I said.
The result was astonishing. One moment I was in a a grimy inn full of bored villagers, the next minute it was empty. They cleaned out of that place as suddenly and completely as if I'd launched a fireball. Only the innkeeper stayed, and he was as far away from me as he could get. I was sure he'd rather be somewhere else but had nowhere else to go.
I wondered if the word always had this effect in these parts. A useful word to know, if so!
"Woodbridge," I repeated, as firmly as I could.
We asked our visitors to come up with an ending, and here's the one we picked. Read what happened next.
Another of our visitors created his own story called "Woodbridge," and you can hear his version over by the soft-drink stand.