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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 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

     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?"
     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

Thursday, 19 November 2020


Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
    The full moon shone lordly over the mountains. Silver capped the distant peaks, flowed like molten light through the valleys, and bathed with a billion diamonds in the lakes far below. All between those glittering stars was black but for two great, dusty streaks smudging the sky beneath the moon, and a third hanging over the distant horizon, each flecked with so many more silver pinpoints that it seemed the stars themselves had gathered to witness the passing of Lun'ul.
    But, of course, the idea was lost on the five tribal children, sitting in a ring upon one mountain ledge, giggling and throwing the dust they'd been told to grind from all kinds of dried insects and herbs. Chores were, after all, a thing grown ups gave them to make sure they became as boring as they were. There was no other reason for it. So they had to work harder to ensure that they didn't.
    Their bronze skin was soon stained such deep shades of red, green and blue by those efforts that it would take a week of sand scrubbing to get it back out. A fact pointed out by one dreadlocked young man as he stopped in his own errands to frown down over them.
    Ice-blue eyes widened and turned up to him sheepishly - all the eyes of all the children, bar one.
    "Deeeehaaaaa," the fifth whined, flopping backwards against the warrior's legs, then onto the rocky ground itself when he shuffled one step backwards. She scowled up at him, upside down, but didn't call her older brother out on it. "Can't you get us out of this?"
    "No," Deha grunted. "And I wouldn't if I could. Breaking stuff is about all you lot are good at, so you can grind the dust for tomorrow's ceremony."
    "But whyyyyy?"
    "Yeah," a boy piped up while she flopped somehow deeper into the ground. "Can't we just go with you? We wanna do more battle traini--" His hands clamped over his mouth at Deha's sharp hush.
    "Mention it again," he whispered, glancing around at the other villagers busying themselves with preparations nearby, "and I'll teach you how to clean weapons rather than swing them."
    "But why do we have to do this?" His sister whined again. "The moon's already up!"
    "Yes," he sighed witheringly, "but the Winds aren't. This dust needs to be ready to purify it, and the priests can't do that if it's not been ground up."
    "Why do they need to? We don't do it every other time the wind blows..."
    Deha rolled his eyes and nudged his petulant sister roughly with his foot. She sighed dramatically and pushed herself back up. He dreaded her getting older. She was already too dramatic for a six year old - what about when she was his age? "Those winds," he sighed, crouching down beside them all, "aren't the same. This Wind is the wind of the spirits. The gust that carries the souls of our ancestors, who protect us and watch over us while they make their way to the Frozen Gates in the south."
    "Why does it matter so much tonight?" Another girl asked. Deha squinted uncomfortably. One of her eyeballs had gone blue.
    "It doesn't," he replied, deciding it wasn't his problem to fix. "Lun'ul is tomorrow night. When the waxing moon aligns with the constellation of Akiirit."
    "The one that looks like a rolling badger."
    "Oh!" All five children squinted up into the sky.
    He was about to rise and resume his task, joining a few others in carving bone charms, when the blue-eyeballed girl spoke up again.
    "But why does it actually matter?"
    He stifled his frustrations and wished, vehemently, that he hadn't gotten involved at all. But, if he didn't answer them now, they would just follow him and pester him until he did. Being Hara's brother meant he was more desirable for her and her friends to harass than anyone else, especially any of the very busy priestesses who could have done a much better job of explaining it than him.
    So, wearily, he shifted the hammered sword from the sling at his side and sat down on the ground, where he was quickly surrounded. A distinct pressure settled on him with the wideness of those patient eyes. "It matters," he began carefully, "because tomorrow night the Winds will drop low enough to pick up our wishes and carry them away. It's the one night when--"
    "It won't pick us up and carry us off with them, will it?"
    His eyes narrowed back at his sister. "I'll make sure it does if you keep interrupting. It carries our wishes - our messages, our love. It's the one night we can speak to the spirits, to our ancestors, and tell them all we wish to tell them."
    "Like what?"
    He shrugged. "Anything."
    One of the other boys gasped brightly. "I can tell them I'm getting really good at hatchet throwing!"
    "Sure," Deha nodded, "if you want to lie to them, that's fine too."
    The boy's expression flattened.
    "What is the Wind?" Another asked. "Why do our ancestors ride it?"
    "Yeah," piped another, "why don't they just walk? Or stay here? Why do they even have to go at all?"
    He sighed as he found himself sinking under a cascade of increasingly heated questions. It took three hushes and a threat from his sword to quiet them. "All right. I'll start at the beginning - assuming I can recall enough of the details. The story of the Wind... Well, Aya'u - you know who She is, don't you? I don't have to start right at the beginning, do I?"
    Each of the children guffawed. "We're not stupid," his sister drawled. "She's the Goddess of the Wind."
    "Thank the sands for that," he muttered. "Well then, I'll begin:
    "Aya'u, Shiya, Degon, Uq'ua, were each loved by the elements. Fire would hug and kiss Shiya, the earth would shelter and warm Degon, water would lap at Uq'oa's toes, and the winds would kiss and caress Aya'u's skin. The rampaging elements tamed in the presence of the gods, and the gods adored them in turn. But, time passed, and the elements weren't company enough - they sang, but they didn't sing the same songs as the gods; they laughed, but they didn't laugh the same way; they loved, but their passion was different. The gods weren't lonely, but...They were missing something...ehh, vital," he finished vaguely.
    "What was so vital?"
    He waved the question away. "You'll understand when you're older. Don't ask your parents."
    "Why not?"
    "Because you'll go blind. Anyway, they--friends." Deha grinned and nodded with satisfaction. "They wanted friends. Yes. So the gods came together with Their elements and made us to be Their friends. Figures were shaped from earth, hardened in fire, filled with water, and blown into motion, and then we were all taken away and put where our gods could find them easiest. Aya'u placed our tribe out here, on the path of the Gende'ah winds.
    "But, when the first of us died, when their bodies couldn't go on any longer, their spirits continued to blow forwards, and with nothing to tether them, they were flung out into the world - every one of them. The children of Aya'u, and the children of the rest.
    "But the gods, though different in Their natures, had never been quarrelsome or jealous. It was Aya'u's breath that gave us life, and it was Her breath that created the Winds to the Frozen Gates, where the elements themselves collapse. It's a place where water turns solid, where plants cannot grow, where the winds roar out of control and fire cannot burn."
    "That sounds...scary..."
    Deha watched their open expressions crease in concern, and he scratched hesitantly at his chin. "It does a bit, doesn't it? ...Well, it isn't. The spirits can't feel it, they're not touched by it, and they're carried by Aya'u's breath through the gates to the gods Themselves."
    "Then what happens?"
    "Then they live with them among the stars, and new spirits are born with the new winds, which are blown into new bodies."
    "Babies!" A girl beamed.
    "" A creeping terror moved slowly into the boy's eyes, then jumped quickly into the rest. "I already have a spirit - what will happen if--"
    "Will I be pushed out of me and someone else takes over?!"
    "What if it happens to my mother?!"
    "What if I become a boy?!"
    He winced in a panic as they began to cry. "Wait, wait, wait, wait! Babies! Unborn babies!" He looked quickly about at the rest of the tribe, and found a few of them frowning his way in disapproval. This wasn't a night for sadness or fear.
    Then his heart jumped suddenly into his throat as a musical voice rose behind him.
    He froze, wide-eyed, for a long moment. Only when his cheeks had flushed completely red did he find the drive to rise clumsily to his feet.
    The young woman was beautiful in her pale, ceremonial hides, hides that darkened her beautiful bronze skin by contrast, which in turn brightened her beautiful blue eyes, and her beautiful lips were set into a beautiful smile despite one beautiful white eyebrow cocked impatiently his way.
    She was...well, beautiful.
    He wished he was capable of thinking of something else every time he saw her.
    "Aya'u knows what She's doing, kids," the training priestess said, turning a more heartfelt smile their way and giving him the opportunity to breathe again. "She knows each and every one of you, and loves you. There's no possible way She would ever let someone else's spirit take over your bodies! She wants to make new friends, not replace old ones!"
    "B-bu-b-but what if she makes a mistake?!" One of the boys blubbed.
    "Good job, Deha," the priestess muttered drily, then knelt and spoke up as his head dropped over rounded shoulders. "She has never made a mistake. Ever. Every single thing She's done has been deliberate. Everything all the gods have done has been deliberate. That's how the elements work together so smoothly. But," she raised a slender finger, "when we begin to doubt in Them, that balance begins to change. We all must trust."
    "But what if we can't?"
    Her smile broadened, and her tone grew almost crisp. "Then leave."
    Deha started at that.
    "Leave here, and travel to the Red Mountain. Speak with the Fa'hari fire tribe and the Traahak earth tribe on the volcano's slopes. See how their elements work in tandem, and the good that their volcano brings the world when the wind scatters its ash.
    "Then visit the Rashan Hills and speak to the Gyuils water tribe; watch the geysers erupt five hundred spans into the air, see the wealth of the land around its pools and far beyond when the wind carries that rich steam away." She smiled at each individual in turn, and Deha watched their eyes glaze with the imaginings of those distant places. "See it all working together, and then decide for yourself."
    Little Hara frowned, and turned her brother a long look. He couldn't quite read the question in her eyes, but he gave her a nod anyway. If she needed some kind of reassurance, Yia was the best person to give it.
    Her big ice-blue eyes turned back towards the waiting priestess. "What if we decide wrong?"
    She chuckled lightly, a sound like rolling water. "You can't decide wrong. It's not possible."
    "What if it is and I'm the first person to do it?"
    "Then," she said simply, "the world will stop turning. Which it cannot do while the Winds continue to blow, and nothing in the world can stop a force like the Winds. That," she smiled, "is how impossible it is. What you decide will be right for you, and you will do with it what you will."
    Their eyes glazed again, and quiet little frowns of thought descended over each of their faces. Some with more difficulty than others.
    But, before long, the soft trill of pipes rose up from further along the mountain shelf and drew them back out of their ponderings. Yai rose back to her feet and straightened out her hides. "The Night Before is beginning," she announced as they followed her up, driven more by curiosity than anything else. "Go. Enjoy yourselves and leave heavy thoughts behind." She looked over the half-empty bowls and their stained skin, and smiled. It was a more jagged one this time - amusement, not piety. "Your work is done."
    "But," Hara looked back to the bowls herself with suddenly profound reluctance, "we didn't finish..."
    "I'm sure Aya'u will believe this is plenty."
    Each face lit up with relief, and the five scrambled over each other to race off to the dance that was kicking up by the pipers.
    Yai sighed and watched them go while Deha reslung his sword. "You really shouldn't talk to children."
    "I know."

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

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Hanging Lanterns

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

     As the legend goes, Jack was a blacksmith with a penchant for dishonesty. He gambled, he drank, he lied - even when he told the truth, he twisted it. And so he inevitably drew the attention of one he shouldn't have. The trouble was, for all his dishonesty, Jack was very good at every single thing he did, and so, when he gambled against the devil, he won - and extracted a promise that his soul would never be taken to Hell.
     Unfortunately for him, when he died, Heaven didn't want the liar and gambler, either. And so Jack was condemned to wander the dark hills of his homeland for eternity, with nothing but the burning coal and hollowed turnip the devil had thrown him to light his endless way.
     Jack O'Lantern's ghostly glow has been spotted for centuries on hill and moor, flickering brightest around the time of Allhallow. The ominous sight sends everyone fleeing behind closed doors - but sometimes, that's not far enough; his light has been known, on occasion, to draw close to the village that was once his home.
     This was one such night.

     The streets were empty of all but the most drunken guisers, those masked and costumed to trick the dead who might wish them ill into thinking them someone else. Torches sputtered over doorways, taken from the great bonefire to guide lost ancestors home; double crosses were drawn beneath windows to turn the unwelcome away; small buns were placed on doorsteps to appease any malignant spirits or witches that might approach the houses.
     Jack wandered unseen through those thinning streets, peering around at the dying festivities until he reached the abandoned and burned out bon'fire in the square. There, he planned to linger and look over the stones arranged around the smoking ruins, each positioned just so to ensure the future health of a household. He could already feel, if not breathe, the herby smell of wards and charms burned to chase out evil and dark omens.
     Those measures never worked, of course; the seeds of misfortune were sown unimpeded for the year ahead on every Allhallowtide without exception. But the living seemed to believe otherwise, and that thought was comfort enough for them. Even if the devil Herself wasn't put off by their flames. Nor by their bells, herbs, loud noises or other fanciful distractions. In fact, She'd been present at these festivities since the fire was sparked at dusk, watching, and deciding.
     And She was still there now, pondering the stones while all else but the spirits themselves had gone to bed.
     Though drawn as he always was to the ashes, Jack kept his distance, and shielded his lantern from her piercing eyes. It was all he would think of until She finally left - and while he knew he should leave and wait for that moment from afar, he couldn't find the strength of will. What cocksurety he'd had in life had fled him quickly in death. And so he wrestled with that stagnant decision for an hour, until movement from the darkness drew his itchy attention away.
     A hunched old man moved out from the night, clad in a thick travelling cloak with a seasonal charm of turnips and mangelwurzels tied about his waist, carved into miserable human faces. His own wrinkled expression was strangely neutral; he wore neither the reverence nor fear others usually carried on this night, nor did he seem curious to the woman's solitary presence.
     Jack inched back deeper into the darkness and watched him approach the deeply tanned woman, who still slowly circled the char. Her ruby eyes soon lifted and stared back from beneath sleek black eyebrows.
     "Fair Allhallow," She said smoothly, her voice like silk.
     "Fair Allhallow," he replied with one far more hoarse, and he delivered a difficult bow. "Devil."
     Her eyes narrowed. But for how carefully She considered him, Jack saw no concern in her terrifyingly perfect bearing. "You could hurt a lady with those words," She said a moment later.
     "I could excite her, too. But it was really just a suspicion." Then the old man squinted closer. "Your eyes truly are beautiful..."
     "Mm." She lifted her chin and stared down along her nose at him. "Correct, on both counts. What do you want?"
     "...Jack?" She blinked. "Silvertongue Jack? What interest do you have in him?"
     "He's an ancestor of mine."
     Jack's eyebrows rose.
     "I'm so sorry," the devil replied sardonically.
     "Aren't we all. But I want to free him."
     Jack's eyebrows lowered.
     "So," the old man smiled, "I challenge you to a competition. If I win, you revoke the curse and let Jack pass on. If you win, then the curse stays, and I'll shoulder it, too."
     Jack's mouth formed an objection, but the dead had no voice.
     He watched a smirk tug its way across her plump lips, then She made a curt gesture as if shooing the old man off. Instead, his back straightened and his face changed: where his skin had sagged and his eyes had sunk, he was suddenly youthful, and not unhandsome. Jack could see no relation either with the mask of magic, nor without it - but it had been two hundred and eighty two years since he'd died, and his familial blood, as blood did, had changed.
     "No mortal man can get the better of me," She told him smoothly. "Charms or no. I always win in the end."
     "Then," the young man smiled, "it's just as well I'm no mortal man."
     Again, her eyes narrowed. "You've caught me in a fair mood. Very well. I accept your proposition."
     "Good. Take off your shoes." Jack frowned just as the devil did, and watched him kick off his own, grab a handful of ash from the ruin, carry it off and trail it in a wide circle around them. "The aim of the game is simple," he said, dusting off his hands, "don't leave the circle. Get soot on your foot or ash in your dash, you lose the tale...forfeit the...I win."
     For some reason, Jack rather felt his hope sink.
     "That didn't work," the devil noted.
     "I never claimed that it did. Are the rules clear?"
     "Clear as crystal."
     "Wonderful." Then his face scrunched. "Why are you smiling like that?"
     "Because all I have to do to win is stand right here. And I don't really have anywhere else to be." She stepped ominously towards him. "For a very long time."
     "...Ah..." He scratched at his head and glanced around. "Well, there's obviously"
     She cocked a speculative eyebrow, folded her arms, and swung her hip out to one side. "Then do tell."
     Jack watched the young man's eyes slowly widen as he thought. The furiosity of the effort was disheartening. But given things as they were, had been, and would continue to be, could this man honestly make his situation any worse?
     ...Yes. He probably could.
     The man snapped his fingers then, a bright look on his face. "Summon a demon and I'll fight it."
     Jack baulked, but the devil shook her head. "It would destroy you in a moment. There will be no fun in that for me."
     "Then summon something smaller."
     "Then what would be the point? And, if I may note - for the sake of fair game - that that would only push you out of the circle."
     "...All right...all right, in that case..." Again, his desperate thought gave way to a rapid grin. "Three more games."
     "Because the first one is going so well?"
     "Those stones," he gestured first towards the pyre, "and those lights," then towards the flickering lanterns outside the nearest house a good fifty yards away. "First one to knock out a flame."
     She gauged the distance for a long moment, pursing her dark red lips.
     "You've got beautiful lips."
     She ignored him, and as her gaze drifted back onto the stones, a mischievous smile crept over her face. She extended her hand, and the stones drifted over, simultaneously spreading doomed portents over the whole village.
     The man grunted quietly to himself as he watched them float by, then followed Her to the edge of the circle and took half the stones for himself. He glanced down at his feet while he stepped up to throw, and quickly shuffled back. "Whoops, nearly."
     Jack buried his face in his hands.
     Less than one minute later, She'd extinguished them all.
     "You used magic," the man accused Her warily, but She simply smiled back with the most perfect mask of innocence.
     "Why would I need magic to hit a target when I have coordination?"
     Jack frowned. No, She hadn't used magic. The devil liked games; Her trickery wasn't in cheating, it was in words.
     Panic would have flashed through him, if it was able, and he quickly racked his mind back over everything She'd said since this ancestor of his had shown up, searching for the trap.
     "But," She said, peering down at the ash circle, "that didn't pull either of us over the line."
     "No, it was poorly thought-out..." the man admitted.
     She turned him a sideways look. "The next game?"
     Her fine brow flattened. "I am not a child divining my future husband."
     "Can't say I blame you, it would be rather disappointing when you came out with nothing. And I can't say I'm keen to divine mine, either. That would be even more upsetting. Fine." Foolishly undeterred, he turned and strode back to the bon'fire, lifted a stick of char and stirred up the embers from a careful distance. Then, with a sharp movement, flicked it upwards. The tiny lights flared, drifted and flickered. "Catch an ember."
     Her black eyebrow rose, but She didn't object.
     Neither did Jack, though he deeply wished to. He knew how this would go. Fire was the devil's pet; it would be no trouble for Her to call the embers into her palm even without resorting to magic. But his fear of Her restrained him from interfering with their drift, and he watched them vie to capture one of the flickering lights while his incorporeal stomach sank another foot lower.
     Predictably, it didn't take long for Her to capture three. Again, his apparent rescuer had failed astoundingly.
     "There's one more game," he reminded Her quickly before She could gloat.
     "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to forfeit?"
     "I am, quite..." He stole another moment to think, then snapped his fingers again, another unsettling wildness in his eyes. "I've got it." He lifted another stick from the mound, one far less burned than the rest. "Set fire to this."
     She barely even glanced at it before a blisteringly hot fire took over it. The man jumped slightly, then stepped back and let it go. The flames quickly caught and spread over the dry grass.
     He turned her a mad grin. "Last one standing."
     She folded her arms and dropped her gaze to the fire. Neither of them moved. Even as the flames began to approach, they both stood their ground. Even as it closed off escape. Even as the smoke began to strangle the air.
     Jack couldn't feel the smothering heat, and neither did he breathe at all. He simply watched as the young man began to sweat, his foolish attention torn between the spreading fire and his opponent. The flames began licking at both of their feet.
     Then, when a terrible smile cracked across the devil's face, the fire suddenly peeled back and fled from her presence. She grinned while the man's eyes widened, and cackled as the flames turned and closed in on him instead, and strode slowly forwards while yet more skittered away, watching him gasp, swear and try to shield himself with his cloak, until he finally stumbled backwards and out of the circle.
     "A marvellous game," she chortled, dismissing the fire without even a gesture. "Such good fun! I do enjoy seeing mortals try to get the upper hand. I did warn you!" She moved forwards, and her beautiful smile curled into something woefully vicious. "You have no idea what you've let yourself in for - which is why, I presume, you're still smiling like an idiot. But at least you'll be united with your dear ancestor." She bared her sharp teeth while his foolish stare travelled down to the ground.
     "You've got such lovely feet."
     She frowned. Then he looked back up, and his smile inched a little wider.
     "Shame about the ash."
     She glanced down and noted the dark smudges. Then grunted and smiled back. "Makes little difference."
     "Aaaaactuallyyyy," he pushed himself back up, "it makes all the difference. I win."
     She shook her head, luxurious black hair bouncing in a storm of elegant curls. "You left the circle. I haven't missed your games. They were diversions, nothing more. The real competition was in not leaving the circle."
     "Very astute of you," he said, inexplicably still grinning. "But I never said the person who leaves the circle loses. I said the one who gets soot on their foot would lose. I said the aim was not to leave the circle, but I never said that that would end the game."
     Her ruby eyes darkened and snapped down to the ground. Jack's followed. There was ash everywhere. The dry grass had burned quickly, and the heat had even stirred the bon'fire's remains.
     A growl rattled from her throat, and her gaze snapped then to his feet. Conspicuously clean. He'd awaited the fire at the edge of the circle deliberately, so he could 'stumble backwards' and avoid wide stretches of ash, keeping himself within the rules.
     Jack blinked.
     The devil's eyes crashed back on the man. The fire blazing in them couldn't be matched even by the flames of Hell. "You tricked me."
     The man simply shrugged. "I did ask you if the rules were clear."
     "No mortal man can--"
     "I did also say I was no mortal man."
     Jack and the devil stared in shock as the man peeled his face away to reveal another, grey-skinned and undeniably feminine.
     The devil steeled and stormed forwards, small sparks of fire lighting beneath her steps. But She didn't strike her. She did nothing at all, in fact, but make a promise: "I will have you for this."
     "I welcome you to try, Devil. But, for now," she grinned and made a florid bow, "adieu."
     The devil glared and vanished. Her roar of outrage hung behind her for some time.
     Then the grey woman turned and looked directly towards Jack. "I thank you for not interfering. You can come out, it's over."
     He did so warily, clutching his lantern tightly and peering around with wide, baffled eyes. "You can see me... What did you--how did you--"
     "I'm somewhat of an expert with demons and darkness," she replied, waving his stuttering away. "The key, ultimately, is pushing them into a position where their arrogance takes over and they make a mistake. I gave Her many openings, and She took them all. Everyone knows fire is the devil's pet. But She underestimated me right from the start." Her smirk became that of the old man again, then back to her youthful yet somehow inhuman features.
     "You knew She'd sense the magic..."
     "It was deliberately clumsy," she shrugged. "That was the point. She instantly underestimated me. Which is why I also appeared as a man. Had I appeared as a woman, She'd have taken me more seriously."
     His brow lowered, and he stopped a few steps away from her. " a witch?"
     "Realm walker, actually, but I've been called...ugh, far worse."
     " I free?" He stopped walking again while she sucked air in through her strangely small teeth.
     "It depends on your perspective," she replied carefully. "Free of the curse, yes. But you're still not welcome in Heaven. And I don't think you would really choose to go to Hell - nor would She want you there."
     "Th-then I'm still cursed to wander!"
     "I'd rather call it free to wander," she grinned, spreading a sweeping gesture out over the hills.
     Jack followed it in disbelief. Why had he gotten his hopes up?!
     His eyes snapped back onto her, and he stared cautiously at the unreadable look she turned him over her shoulder.
     "Unless, of hung up your lantern, and came with me..."
     "...With you?"
     "Oh yes." She turned and wandered back over towards him, draping a bony arm over his shoulders. "I have great plans for you, Jack."

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