Thursday, 31 December 2020

Aeonas's Pass

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes


     The amethyst sky loured over the fells. Snow drifted through the open forest like fragments of ivory, burying the road and outshining the glow of the dying sun, while a thick, creeping fog, both natural and impossible, layered itself over the slopes. The evening was silent but for the thin wheeze of the wind, still but for the sway of bare branches, and beautiful but for the seething black scar running like a river of decay from the horizon.

     There was no living thing for miles around - none at all but the cloaked figure walking at the head of that scar, bleeding it further into the shrouded forest with every lonely, booted step.
     The pace was steady, unhurried despite the taint; monotonous and resolute. And while the dreadful scar stretched, the eerie fog fled away, leaving the forest clear behind to gather instead at the lead. There, the cloud thickened, luring and goading the traveller, all while remaining always just one step out of reach.
     But Aeonas was too old to be deterred.
     Clad in a tattered cloak pulled tight against the cold, patched and stitched with a skill that had grown over ages, Aeonas walked eternal, with a bow and quiver slung over a shoulder, hose strapped with countless satchels, some small and writhing, and a doublet lashed with parchments and journals. And every day, with every thought and every event, that burden only grew. After almost a full year, Aeonas had been reduced to a heavy trudge. And yet still, the never-ending walk continued, through sun, through rain, through frost and snow, while the heading remained lost in a dense, blind cloud.
     The frigid breeze briefly picked up, stirring the edges of the fog as a grand stone bridge took shape on the left. As Aeonas stepped past it, it crumbled in a cloud of dust. It wasn't acknowledged with even a glance.
     Then an elaborate vase the size of a child emerged on the right, gilded and empty, and burst into flames just as suddenly. It went equally unnoticed.
     The bridge and vase melted ignored into the scarred, blurred world at Aeonas's back, though both stood less distorted than their surroundings. Ruined stone and ceramic remained crystal clear and perfectly defined, and with their survival, another pouch upon Aeonas's hip writhed and wriggled. The spider weaving amongst them skittered to secure itself.
     But, as always, those old, teal eyes didn't turn down to witness it. Staring blindly ahead, there was no effort within them to try to see even the clouded forms of the trees.
     More shapes soon blotched and darkened the heading, and sounds drifted through the muffled air, each unclear until Aeonas finally drew level with them. Then music piped in, flutes and strings to fill a weary heart with warmth - but still not a step was lost to distraction. Not even when another figure danced her way through the clouds. Her golden dress spun and flared with her twirls, the snow whispered beneath the grace of her feet. But Aeonas's eyes remained fixed to the fog ahead.
     The young woman leapt and glided on into the scar, and where she faded and blurred away, forgotten with so much else, a thick, purple cloud of acrid smoke trailed along behind her. This lingered all too clearly.
     Aeonas disregarded it, pulling the cloak closer as the cold crept through to what little bare skin it could find and snowflakes burned a lined and sullen brow. Then a high-pitched call came from the fogline, and an owl swept in from its rest in a nearby tree. But this, Aeonas knew, was no phantom. And knew equally that it had been waiting.
     Teal eyes broke their stare for only a moment, and as the owl took position overhead and followed Aeonas in perfect time, their gaze returned to the distance, just as another satchel jerked and writhed.
     In that moment, another shape emerged, one fast, thick, and slavering. A beast, neither wolf nor bear, crashed through the darkness towards the wanderer, red eyes fiercely aglow. But still, Aeonas didn't flinch, nor turn as another shape formed close to the left, its glinting sword raised high. The beast snarled and leapt for the head, but as Aeonas continued unshaken, it seized the shadow instead, and they vanished as quickly as the both of them had appeared.
     Then came the comforting smell of warm fruit, and the sound of joyous, hopeful singing. Both grew stronger, filled the air on all sides, then flooded on into the blur behind, where it reverberated wondrously amongst everything else.
     More abstract fragments of life moved by, until the screech of the owl broke the silence.
     Aeonas looked up, and bleak lips turned down further. The snow was heavier, the fog thicker, and the forest was growing dense. More trees took shape, stronger, defined, with deliberate clarity over the rest. As Aeonas walked on devotedly past them, some began to freeze, others grew taller, a single wassailed tree burned, and an emerging windmill turned to gold.
     But Aeonas continued, resigned, afraid and weary, wading through the mystery, past every event, until the air ahead suddenly and sharply cleared to a deep amethyst sky, empty of dread and thought. Finally, those ancient boots came to a stop.
     With a breath of relief, Aeonas shrugged out of the hood and looked out to the open night ahead, weathered heart beating in a fever. But there was nothing to see. Nothing to hear. Nothing to fear and nothing to celebrate. There was nothing at all, but possibility.
     With another breath, of peace and preparation, Aeonas's gaze dropped. And there, at the toe of the old boots and further down still, sprawling from the base of the cliff the wanderer now stood upon like a ragged old spectre, the fog rolled on. Everything beneath, everything ahead, everywhere old boots could walk, remained just as clouded and unclear. The shroud was endless, stretching far beyond what teal eyes could reach.
     Only now did Aeonas turn, and grimaced deeper at the sight of the scar left behind, the black destruction, lined with that most hated and most cherished; the things one would wish to forget, and the things one clings to without knowing better.
     But Aeonas had learned. There was nothing to be done but continue. There was no going backwards, and there was certainly no stopping; and as difficult as moving forward would always be, it could be made a little easier.
     Aeonas knelt down on the snow and sorted through the satchels. One by one, they were looked over, unstrapped from thigh and calf, peered tentatively inside of when needed. Some were filled with smoke, others with flowers, others still with dull stones and others with charred pine cones. Some with light itself, and others with nothing but the scent of spruce needles. And, one by one, Aeonas considered them with a practised eye.
     "Nothing heavier than a feather."
     And so, among many others, the satchel of smoke, the satchel of light, and the satchel of charred pine cones were discarded. And the satchels of flowers, of the smell of spruce needles, and of dull stones remained.
     Then Aeonas sorted through the journals and parchments.
     "Nothing lighter than lead."
     And so the notes and records of struggles, of love, of ideas and of hands remained, while disappointment, embarrassment, shame and nightmares were cast away.
     Aeonas stood taller, left now with only worthwhile lessons, and faced back into the clear sky and clouded earth. With one step, the traveller fell from the cliff.
     And landed on the soles of ancient boots with barely the sound of the snow beneath.
     With a deep breath, Aeonas continued on into the unknown, the owl ever overhead, spider ever weaving between the remaining satchels and journals. And behind the wanderer, there was nothing but bootprints in the snow.

 

Thank you all so much for your support this year.
I wish you all the best for 2021.


This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2020 Kim Wedlock



Saturday, 19 December 2020

In The Heart Of Winter

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
 
 
     Hmmm...a crackling hearthfire... It's quite a thing when the world outside is white, isn't it? Any other time, fire is something to be feared, something destructive, consuming...but now...heh, well now we adore it, don't we? We gather around it, we feed it, we welcome its warmth and the colour it casts over the cold, bleached world; it brightens even the wood of this old, dreary inn, glitters across these dented tankards, makes that tattered, ale-stained rug there seem a little less moth-eaten. I daresay even the woodworms are marvelling.
     But the cold...it hasn't truly gone anywhere, has it? After all, a simple fire can't stop a season. And yet...knowing that winter is still lurking outside makes these flames seem almost friendlier, doesn't it? They don't seethe and spit, they laugh and flicker. But...I wonder...would we hear that at all if not for that very cold?
     ...Heh, forgive an old bard her musings. Winter always slows me down, gives me too much time to think. Come, sit beside me while I tell you a story. There's plenty of room. And bring me a mulled cider on your way, there's a good neighbour.
     Actually, just bring the whole pitcher.
     Now, take a glance out through the window while you warm your hands over the hearth. What do you see?
     It's a silly question, I grant you; what else is there but the snowfall? Drifting flakes of pure winter, floating like feathers and coating the world so absolutely. 'Smothering it', some of you might say; 'blanketing it' say others. But whether all seems dead, or all seems asleep, nothing but time can move winter away. No fire can hurry it out, nor any amount of wishing or yearning.
     Nor can it hurry it in.
     "Why would you want to?" I see the words on your lips. But please, keep your comments to yourself for the moment. For 'Summer Smiles, Winter Woes' - are they not, as many other things are, down to perspective? Association? Temperament? Heart?
     This is an old tale, one forgotten but still familiar, as stories go: a wish against reason, a commitment to something impossible and irrational, powered by nothing more than the blind hope swelling in one's chest.
     It involves a knight, of course - one of the usual breed: chivalrous, formidible, romantic, determined to the point of raising serious questions about his intellectual wellbeing. He was the Champion of House Aestas, with ancient ties to the summer, and he carried many titles, accolades and honours in their defence. He was a fury on the battlefields, a breeze in the courts, and an artist in his own spare time. But despite his allegience, it was always in the quiet solitude of the winter, when the world slumbered and war was forgotten, that his heart felt most at peace.
     It had taken only one moment for that to change.
     His mount had been lamed on their lonely patrol one December evening, a treacherous fault in the road hidden by the depth of the snow. The stirrup had trapped the knight's foot as they'd fallen, and his leg had been crushed under the horse's weight. With no shelter and no help in reach, the soft, gentle, numbing touch of the cold had almost taken him. Never in his battle-hardened life had the knight truly been so close to death.
     From that moment on, winter's tranquil cloak had been replaced by something else - but it was not, as you might well expect, woven of anxiety or fear. Though it was also no less powerful.

     Five winters after that fateful eve, the knight clicked a younger horse along that very same snow-shrouded road, acutely aware all the while of its edge. The world glowed white around him, clouds puffed from the beast's muzzle and through the grate of his visor, and as he breathed deep the crisp air, an anxious shudder hummed in his chest. And when the road soon vanished and the thick, glittering, snow-muffled wilds closed in, it grew to a raging pounding fit to shatter his ribs.
     Knight and steed descended white valleys, crossed slippery fords, passed unmounted through the black and white tangles of trees, until the wilds finally opened out and a frozen lake stood still and silent at the centre of the shimmering glade.
     The knight stopped there, at the edge of the ice, and waited. His breath puffed a steady rhythm while his heart hammered at six times the pace. But it took only a moment for the radiance he awaited to appear.
     A young woman stepped out from the frozen falls, a vision of youth and tranquility. She had hair of silver, snow and ice, skin of the purest ivory, and eyes as blue as the deepest glaciers. She was like a fragment of the landscape itself. And as she moved towards him, her frost-woven gown tinkled a somber melody, and glowed in the thin winter sun like diamonds.
     And her smile, a smile just for him, was like the rise of the sun itself.
     The knight's heart blazed like a pyre, just as it had on that December evening five years ago, when her impossible magic had revived and nursed him back to health, and the ache in his soul overpowered him. He surged towards her, threw off his helmet, and they kissed with the passion of lovers kept apart for a lifetime. The chill of the air around her crept over his skin, but he held her only tighter.
     When they finally parted, the knight heaved a cloudy sigh and cupped Winter's chin in his hand. "Three seasons apart is too long."
     "You shouldn't wait for me," she whispered, her voice as quiet as the snow.
     But the knight shook his head, just as he had every other time she'd said it. "I will always wait. I could never love another."
    "Then Spring," she said sadly, nestling her ivory cheek into his gauntlet, "will always pull us apart."
     He could bare no other words, and drew her close again. In three months, he knew, she would be gone with the frosts, back to her own realm, while he remained in the plane of man and mortal. And he would not see her, hold her, kiss her, nor love her again for nine.
     But neither would he hold, kiss, nor love another.
     Every day, the knight dutifully tended to his master's wishes, and came back to her every evening. He slept in her arms, and she in his, and they walked, talked, laughed and sang together. With the snow flurries, her heart was warmest, her smile most joyful, and when the sky was as crisp, blue and empty as a glacial lake, her mind and demeanour calmest. And in every one of those moments, his own heart was at peace.
     But all too soon, the season passed, they kissed for the last time, and she faded with the thaw, just as he'd known she would. And he returned obediently to his master, his world and his life, rigid of shoulder and dead of eye, and worked through the spring, the summer and the autumn, until he could hold her again.
     The cold took an age to return, and, as things yearned for often do, passed in the blink of an enraptured eye; again she faded, the snow melted, the sun rose higher, and the flowers peeked and bloomed. And while the world awoke, his heart returned to its benumbed sleep.
     But it was after the eighth winter, the eighth parting, the eighth ride back to the world that was his and held nothing for him at all, when his heart refused to quiet. He spent that year trapped in a relentless longing, mindless, just waiting for the return of the chill so he could brush her lips again.
     He arrived at the lake one week ahead of the ninth winter, and watched the waterside every night, waiting for the first frost to creep and crackle over the ground. He gave her no chance to fully form when she rose from its fingers on that fifth night. But despite his haste, she saw how drawn he'd become, and the dim, faded flicker of the usual light in his eyes.
     The night sky clouded, and her voice scathed like an ice storm. "I told you not to wait for me."
     "I will always wait for you," he replied with a weak, crooked smile.
     "The wait will destroy you. You're withering."
     He said nothing. He knew it was true. He merely watched her instead. And she saw the thought in his eyes, a thought he refused to voice - a thought he feared would be set alight like a funeral pyre should even half the words come out. And a thought that screamed even louder for that fear.
     She shook her head with all the regret of the stars and moved up against him, draping his arms around herself. "I can't go with you, my love. I won't survive beyond the reach of the cold."
     "You control it," he reminded her hollowly. But she shook her silver head again.
     "I am a slave to it. I can't leave its reach. It will kill me."
     And how brightly that pyre burned.
     The pair stayed together through the winter nights, walking, talking, laughing and singing, sleeping in each other's arms. But all the while, the inevitable dogged him like a spectre. A year spent yearning, and the season itself spent in fear. Knowing they would part, three months wasn't enough. It could never be enough.
     The wretched world began its thaw, the sun chased out the frost, and with that final kiss, the knight's heart sank into his boots. And she saw the thought brimming in his eyes again.
     "I cannot go with you," she repeated in a whisper. But this time, her words didn't cut like a blade through his chest. Instead, he fixed her with a stolid look.
     "I know," he replied, taking her hands in his. "So take me with you."
     Winter's ivory skin drained truly as white as the snow. "No," she replied in a panic, the sky turning from azure to thick, ominous grey, "I can't, you'll die if I do; you cannot survive in my realm any more than I can away from it!"
     But the knight's eyes didn't waver, as firm as the steel that encased him. "You know this for certain?"
     Her hesitation was enough.
     He squeezed her fingers as the condemning sun crept higher through her clouds, she pulled him close against her, and with a kiss that was far from final, the world around them faded with the last of the winter's frost.
     The chill overtook him in a heartbeat. His lips became numb against hers. But it was a familiar chill - her chill. A chill that grew as he felt her body move back from him. He opened his eyes to find her again, his heart leaping in a panic, but the gleaming landscape stunned and blinded him. He winced and searched for her hand instead. But she'd already taken his.
     Slowly, his eyes adjusted, and he stared at the landscape, cautious first, then struck by awe like the kick of a horse. He took in the white hills, the crystalline pillars, the frozen lakes and bridges, the trees built from snowflakes; he watched the diamond dust shimmering in the air, the light glancing across the huge silver spheres that floated just inches from the ground, and the huge great bands of silver filigree that moved slowly across the sky, casting elegant shadows across the snow.
     Their fingers laced as he took a slow step deeper into her world, his skin prickling despite his furs, and relief, comfort and wonder eased out in a single, mindless laugh. He breathed the crisp air, drawing it in as deep as he could, unlike any he'd tasted before. It filled his lungs and reached deep into his soul, clearing his every fret. With another breath, it seeped into his veins and purified his blood. With a third, it lined them. With a fourth, it splintered them.
     His mind turned white, his fingers slipped, and he crumpled to his knees while his heart began to freeze. His rasping throat begged him to cough, his cracking chest begged him to breathe again, his numbing legs begged him to rise and run, to find heat. But he couldn't. Every motion burned in his tightening, seizing muscles. And while panic's frozen grip pierced deeper into his heart, he heard her voice beside him, roaring and chiming like an ice storm.
     Her hands grasped him, arms squeezed around him, and the world about him warmed.
     The knight lay on the thawing ground, staring up into the spring morning sky. Alone. Alone, but for the voice that trailed on a tendril of cold, frozen air.
     'Wait for me no longer.'

     The knight didn't return to his duties that spring. Instead of service in war, he scoured libraries. Instead of mingling with courtiers, he hounded intellectuals. Instead of pursuing the arts, he bargained with witches. And only in the dead of autumn did he find what he needed.
     A legend within a legend, perhaps, but such is the way of things. Either way, the pellar answered his hopes.

First bright beam
Of winter's moon,
Owned by glass
Like glacier hewn;
Housed and cradled,
Of time-attuned,
Proud heart 'comes
Enchant-immune.

     It was a long moment that the knight watched the pellar in his dark little hut, while the old man stared back in expectation. "What does it mean?" He finally dared ask. "I must capture the moon?"
     The pellar answered by taking a glass jar from one of his many cabinets, a jar thick and crackled, but whole. He pressed it into the knight's hands as though it had always been his.
     "I catch it in this?" He asked, his misgivings tumbling over the glass. "How will this help?"
     "The first beam of winter's moon, cradled until season's end, will break the spell of winter's realm, and frozen hearts will mend."
     Understanding soothed the knight's haggard face. "It will protect me from the cold of her world... Tell me, pellar: what do I owe you?"
     "What can you afford to spare, my lord?"
     "Everything."
     And so the knight gave the pellar his entire estate. He wouldn't need it again.

     When the tenth winter neared, he left for the lake, jar in hand, and captured the first beam of moonlight to grace the frosting ground. The light swelled as he jammed the cork in place, and, for a heartbeat, the glass glowed like Winter's own eyes, before fading to a subdued little pulse.
     When she rose from the frost a moment later, she could see something had changed. He was aged and weary, but hopeful, and his smile dragged hope into her chest.
     "I told you not to wait for me," she said as he enveloped her.
     "And if I hadn't?"
     He showed her the jar, and explained the pellar's plan. Misgivings moved through her eyes, but she voiced none of them. Together, they nurtured the light through the season, they kept it covered, kept it glowing, and it charged them both with hope. And when that tenth winter began to fade, on the morning of the first day of spring, the knight opened the jar, coaxed out the tame moonbeam, and let it melt through his armour, his furs, his skin, and wrap itself around his heart.
     And again, Winter took a gentle hold of him, and the world faded and brightened to the realm of silver, snow and ice.
     His eyes adjusted, the chill touched his skin, but he stood tall at her side this time, and looked again across the crystalline pillars, the frozen lakes and bridges, the diamond dust glittering in the air, the trees built from snowflakes, the huge silver spheres and the bands of filigree moving slowly across the sky.
     And again, his skin chilled despite his furs, and he breathed deep of the crisp air. And still he stood tall. It filled his lungs. It lined his lungs.
     It splintered his lungs.
     And, again, the knight dropped to his knees while his heart began to freeze, and his wretched hope shattered like glass.
     His lips couldn't curse. His chest couldn't heave. His fist couldn't pound the snow. Every motion burned in his tightening, seizing muscles. And again he could hear her voice, roaring and chiming like an ice storm.
     Hands seized him.
     The world around him warmed.
     And he lay on the thawing ground, staring up into the spring morning sky.
     Helpless tears finally sprung into his eyes. "It didn't work..." The voice didn't feel like his own. He couldn't feel his lips move. But as his blurred eyes adjusted onto the shadow half-obscuring the sky, he found Winter kneeling over him, and he watched her form flicker, the sky itself shining through.
     Desperate urgency clasped his hands tightly around hers, and he dragged the pair of them back to their feet. "We can't be together..."
     "No." Her voice was already growing distant. "We can't be apart."
     Her lips pressed against his, her cold fingers brushed across his bearded cheek, and as irrational understanding gripped him, he pulled her closer and steeled against the ice splintering through his skin from her touch.
     The pair of them froze at the edge of that lake, and as their hearts beat their last, the knight's moonbeam surrounded them, the cold light of a winter moon warding off the warmth of the spring sun.
     When the next winter came, they awoke together and ushered the season in, and they walked, talked, laughed and sang as they oversaw it as one. The snow drifted with their joy, the skies cleared crisp more often, and storms were nary seen. And when Spring inevitably arrived to revive the world, Winter's final kiss froze them again under the shield of the knight's moonlight, until Summer's Woe passed, and Winter's Smile reigned once again.

     The next time you look out through the window, warmed by a hearthfire's glow, what will you see, I wonder? Smothering, death and woe? Or the soft comforts of Winter's heart?
     ...Would you mind refilling this? The cider's run dry.
 
 

This story and its artwork are not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2020 Kim Wedlock