The girl's tiny little body was only hints and folds under the thick woollen coverlet of her bed - hands, feet, even half her face had all been hidden from the cold. Her eyes still stared out over the tuck of the coverlet, though, clear and blue.
The pale man at the window looked out at the night sky a few moments more, then turned and moved to sit in a chair by the girl's bed, his boots speaking loud and soft as he crossed stone floor to rug to stony floor again. Once seated, he met her unwavering stare and gave a small grin.
"You look just like you're waiting for a bedtime story, my dear," he said.
The little girl said nothing - just stared at him over the covers.
"There's really only one story that springs to mind at the moment, and you're probably sick of it by now. Hah, I'm absolutely certain your mother must be. Still ... I guess while we're waiting for her, there's not much else to do, is there?
"'Once upon a time, there was a young but lonely King. Hard though he searched, he could not find a woman to be his bride. It was not for want of princesses and ladies seeking his favour, no; the problem was rather that he sought nothing less than the most beautiful, the most graceful, the rarest and most devoted of maidens for his wife. And why not? He himself was a man of beauty and grace, a lion-hearted warrior devoted to and adored by his people, beloved and favoured by many divine as many of his noble line had been before him.
"'But the years wore on and the young King grew less young, reaching fullest manhood without finding the wife he so ardently sought. He began to despair of ever finding her. Rather than continue his search, he took to riding far and alone through his beautiful country, and his people mourned to think that this most glorious line of kings would end.
"'Mortals cannot see all ends. The world is wide and mysterious, and full of gods.'"
The big pine tree outside the house rattled the bristling hands of its branches against the wall in a heavy evening huff of wind. The man in the chair looked up and laughed.
"Ooh, an omen," he grinned. "They like to hear their names spoken. Perhaps they're listening to the story ...
"'One evening, in a dark and cold midwinter, the King rode alone to the titan-toothed mountains of the furthest west, where the Sun dies at the close of every day. And it was here he found a forest, and it was here he found a glade, and it was here he found the maiden made of night and winter, dancing the leap-and-dance of the hunting wolves.
"'Beauty so cold he trembled, grace so silver he wept, love so terrible he cried in terror! He might have fled, for he feared he had disturbed a goddess, but she looked at him with her eyes made of night and winter and he did not move.
"'Who can say why she deigned to speak? She was not divine, but she was born of the divine, Winter's Daughter, too great for the greatest kings of men. Who can say why she offered her voice, soft echo of the first snow, to a mortal? Perhaps she thought him strange, warm in the coldest place, colours in his red-gold hair and grey-green eyes. Perhaps she thought of her mortal father, centuries gone, and wished to know him more.
"'None can say why Winter's Daughter spoke, but speak she did, and asked him why he had come.'"
The evening winds heaved again, strengthening as they always did in the river valley when the westerly shift came. A gust of it flooded through the window, imperfectly sealed, and madly ruffled both the man's hair and a few tight-tucked strands of the girl's before it died. He shook his head and raked through his white mane until his face was open to the chilly air again, and then did the same for the child, flicking a freed black lock back from her eyes.
"Speaking's overrated, of course," he said. "Messy. Makes you pay less attention to what's going on. I'm sure you don't miss it much. This story would probably have been a bit different, too, if no-one had spoken. Although -" he gave another sudden rapid-fire laugh - "I have to speak to tell it, don't I?
"'The King gave honest answer; what fool would dare otherwise? He spoke of a long search, and a longer despair, and a final night in his heart, for no love lived for him in the mortal world. Winter's Daughter listened to his words, and found them curious, for she understood neither despair nor love. She told him that neither such thing lived in the snows under the furthest mountains, and he had best go home to find them quickly before the brief span of his years played out.
"'The King did return to his kingdom, but the colours of the world seemed glaring and garish, a giggling child's attraction after the older, regal beauty of white and black.
"'And Winter's Daughter danced with the oldest wolves again, but the ageless monotones seemed tired after the clear shout of green, and she began to wonder at the tides of time.
"'After only a year, the King returned to the glade in the forest in the mountains. Winter's Daughter delighted in the colours; the King delighted in her dance. But he was a good man, and devoted to his people, and although he returned to her every year, every year he returned to the affairs of his kingdom. Winter's Daughter was no less a devoted child; every year she waited, but every year she refused to leave her mother's place.
"'Stay with me, stay with me, she told him every time.
"'Come back with me, come back with me, he begged her every time.
"'The people of the kingdom were afraid, and pleaded with their King to leave the mountains to the gods, for mortals cannot find love with the divine. And wild Winter herself was troubled, and warned her daughter to show herself no more, for mortals have nothing to offer the divine.
"'But just as they would not break faith with country and kin, they would not break faith with each other. Every year the King returned to the mountains, and every year Winter's Daughter greeted him there.
"'And the years went by, and the King grew old, and lost much of his colour; but he made the same journey, and she welcomed him in the same way.
"'And then the King died, and the mountains, like all the world, were closed to him, and his final journey was in the final dark, to Dros.'"
The man tapped his foot lightly on the floor for a moment, then stood up and went to peer out of the window again. Pressing an absent hand to the loose-rattling window frame, he stared outside past rhythmically bowing pine-branches and early little spittings of rain.
"Your mother shouldn't be out in this," he remarked absently. "I'm sure they'll bring her back soon, but it was rather silly to go out in the first place ..."
He stood there a while longer, still peering out, then waved a hand and went to flop down in the chair again, back under the focus of the little girl's stare. "Sorry. Bad place to leave the story," he said.
"'Winter's Daughter did what the divine cannot: she wept, the tears granted by her father, and pleaded long with her white mother for aid. But Winter would not answer her.
"'Winter's Daughter went then to each of the Divine Families, heedless of alliance and descent and enmity, begging every god and goddess in all the heavens and hells for their clemency. When they would not move for her, or could not, she went at last to the place of the hopeless, to the land of the Judge himself, Even-Handed Dros of the Dead.
"'How many suppliants has Dros looked upon, hands raised and craving his intervention? How many petitioners has he seen, pleading with him to turn back the fate the divines ordain for a loved one? How many of those begging mercy were themselves divine?
"'Dros is Law, moved only by the Rule and the Oath, and never-near-never by pity alone.
"'But Winter's Daughter is one of the few - the very few, countable even now by name - to have moved him.
"'Perhaps it was love that swayed him, though the pleas of lovers shower daily upon his unturned head. Perhaps it was the privilege of the divine, though the Queen of Heaven herself begged him on her knees for her son and heard no answer. Perhaps it was the lonely fate of the half-divine, neither this nor that, neither of this world nor the ethers, which moved Dros to bend the Rule.
"'Or perhaps it was the bargain. Dros gives nothing for nothing, for that itself is unjust. Winter's Daughter begged for the King to be reborn of her own divinity, for her own self to be halved for his sake, to share all that she was with him - a mortal to be made more divine, and a divine-born to be made more mortal.
"'Dros deemed it fair. He granted her request.
"'The King returned to life, more than he was, youth restored and power greater than it had ever been - a man with a taste of the very ethers. And his kingdom was overjoyed, and he took Winter's Daughter for his wife, for truly she was the most beautiful, the most graceful, the rarest and most devoted of maidens in all the mortal world. She became his Queen.
"'And they lived ... ever after.'"
The pine tree scratched lazy fingers on the wall outside, like the fingers that the man was lightly drumming on his knee.
"Just one word missing, eh?"
The child was silent.
"That's real stories for you," he chuckled, glancing at the door this time as louder noises struck up on the lower floor - juddering door-hinges, heavy footsteps, jingling mail. "Amazing how crucial the little details can be."
"Tintauri!" came a muffled shout. The voice was resonant, authoritative. "Hells, are you still up there? Whichever of your giggling games you're playing, leave it! I can't find her on my own, and if we don't find one survivor in this ratpit we'll have come the whole way for nothing."
The pale man in the chair glanced at the door again, his smile curling at one corner for a moment - a hooked grin, a barbed contempt. Then he looked back to the silent, empty-staring child under the bloody covers.
"Well, I'm afraid that's that, my dear," he said. "Time to wake up and go find mother."
|20 Apr 2008|| Elizabeth Fitzgerald|
I loved the story, but I really struggled with the context. Which is to say I understood the fairytale and rather enjoyed it, but the framing story perhaps needed to be a bit stronger. Hard to say exactly how to do that without ruining the surprise ending (which indeed came as a surprise to me). I think perhaps a little more time setting the scene would have been nice. I hardly grasped it before I had to start making sense of the fairy tale.
Nice to see more work up here from you. It certainly deserves more comments than are up here at the moment. A.R. George
replies: "The context, as you can probably guess, was an afterthought. It’s really only the equivalent of a cheap picture frame for the story.
I think the only reason I didn’t just put the myth in there was a combination of unbroken ploddingness and misleadingness (TM), since obviously the story didn’t end quite that nicely. But you’re right, it can’t really be called much more than a short snippet for those in the know. Perhaps if I think of a way to polish up the frame without writing a whole other story behind it, I will ... one day ... *cough*
Thanks for reading (aeons and aeons ago), my sweet "
|24 Jun 2008|| Elizabeth Fitzgerald|
Not that long ago, especially considering how long it takes me to get around to answering the comments on my own page, that’s for sure!
As you said, it was a good story for those in the know. And I don’t think you necessarily need to change that. I just needed a bit more time at the beginning before the myth. It’s a fantastic frame, just needs a little bit of polish.
Any word on more? Or are you holding it ransom until I get to the Lionar?
|27 Aug 2009|| Sarah Clawson|
I loved it! Don’t change it!