The Birth of Spring
A bitter chill hung heavy in the air and the sun was little more than a hazy glow in a sky dreary and gray as Astara crossed into the northern realms. A fine mist imprisoned the forest of winter-bare limbs in layers of ice while a fog floated over the ground, oozing around the tall, solemn tree trunks, swallowing all sound to leave the world clothed in silence.
Gray, willowy shadows lurked at the edges of the tree line, ghosting across the forest path like slow, slithering serpents. Within those murky shadows, Astara sensed other, real forms—silent, deadly, serious forms. She knew if she cared to peer into the shadowy depths, she would see glowing eyes glaring back. She kept her gaze trained forward, ever thankful the human children she carried within the folds of her skirt were safely hidden from prying eyes, their dreams shielding them from harm.
Off in the distance, rising out of the mist like phantom pillars of polished stone, loomed the tall towers of the Snow Palace. Astara had been there once as a child, when the old king had ruled the realm and the new one was nothing more than his beloved son. Though covered in the same ice and snow, the realm had not seemed so bleak then. The land had held a sense of wonder, a magic that had long since abandoned this place.
Astara could only hope some part of the old king's once-beloved son's heart could still be reached or her journey would be for naught.
As she stepped clear of the forest, a great howling rose behind her. She froze, unsure what the Winter Guard would do if she failed to heed their warnings to go no further. Other haunting howls rose from the Snow Palace in answer to those behind her. The eerie wails echoed throughout the valley, lacing the frigid air with a sense of doom.
Before Astara could decide what she should do, a lone figure stepped from one of the towers to stare down at her from his snow-covered perch. He stood tall against a wind that blew his unbound, snow-white hair across smooth skin near as pale. He appeared more spirit than living, a wraith adrift in a spectral realm of ice and snow and mist.
Thief of Dreams
At dark of night
when the spirits roam,
lost and lonely, far from home,
The veil shall part
and within be seen
the white stag prancing before the king.
If ye be timid, or faint of heart,
from the path, do not depart.
For if a ring, ye step within,
the eldritch flame shall surely win.
Forever more, ye will tarry,
trapped within the land of Faery.
Gerard Regan laid the copper down on the counter and took the mug from the merchant's grubby hands. He left the booth and moved into the crowd, his every step a carefully measured exercise in balance.
The mead sloshed over the rim of the mug, the sticky liquid oozing over his hand and through his fingers. He didn't care. Shoving aside any who dared to block his path, he made his way toward Lord Devi's tent which sat prominently at the head of the field. That's where he'd left Nerys.
"Nerys," he sneered as he neared the tent. "Nerys the fair, Nerys the beloved. Nerys Devi—my reluctant bride-to-be."
Gerard tipped the mug to his lips and drained its contents. Dropping it to the ground, he swiped his hand across his mouth and forced his way through the line of people gathered around the large table set before the tent.
He stepped into the clearing at the group's center just as Nerys bent her head low to allow a small peasant child to place a crudely-braided oak crown upon her head.
"Me lady," the boy whispered, his small hand lightly smoothing Nerys' wavy hair. "I crowns ye queen for the day."
Nerys raised her head and gave the boy a smile.
A faint pink colored his cheeks as the boy dropped down to one knee. "Wha's yer wish, me lady?"
"I—" she began.
"My lady," Gerard said, stepping forward, "wishes you to leave."
Nerys pursed her lips and glared at Gerard.
He sank down on the bench next to her. "I care not what these commoners think, Nerys."
She frowned and looked away.
Taking her hand in his, he said, "I see I've again met with your disapproval." He shrugged. "As you wish, my lady, I shall try to care. Who would dare upset the queen of this illustrious festival?"
Nerys pulled her hand away and placed it upon the boy's cheek. "I wish, my good sir, for the dance to begin."
The boy darted a nervous glance toward Gerard as he rose. Taking a step back, he flashed Nerys a toothy grin, snapped his feet together and said, "Aye, me lady, as ye wish." He delivered a quick bow, then fled toward the dance field.
Nerys continued to stare into the crowd long after the child had disappeared, his small form swallowed up by the throng. She kept her hands clasped tightly upon her lap, the knuckles white, and her expression closed, unreadable save for the tightening along her jawline.
Her displeasure hung in the silence between them.
"Take that thing off," Gerard growled, pointing at the crude crown encircling her brow. "You belittle me and my House by wearing it. As my bride, you will not disgrace me so."
"You forget, Gerard, we aren't wed."
He laughed. Leaning back, he rested his elbows against the table's edge and stretched his long legs out before him, ankles crossed. "Nay, I didn't forget. You don't [allow] me to. Yet you forget, it seems. 'Twas arranged long ago. I await only your father's final blessing on the day you turn twenty-one." He caressed one of her wavy curls. Winding it about his fingers, he forced her face toward him until her lips poised a mere inch from his own. "Then, you will belong to me."
Nerys pulled the slim dagger from her waist belt and sliced through the tresses of hair, barely missing his fingers. Leaning away, she stood and sheathed the blade. "Lest you forget—my father may have offered my hand, but 'tis my heart that must be won." She followed the boy into the crowd.
Gerard lifted the hair and rubbed the soft brown curls against his cheek. Staring after her, he laughed, the sound harsh and cold. "'Tis not your heart I require."
The Ancient One
Talwyn knew no other time before the mist. She knew no other shelter. Born within the mist's cool nothingness, she could recall nothing else but its soothing embrace. The mist had always been there and she within it.
But the changing was drawing near. Her kind, the Golden, whispered of its coming, reveled in its nearness, and welcomed its arrival. She could sense the excitement ripple within the oneness they shared, yet she was not sure she was as eager to see her existence change.
Time passed slowly within the mist, yet with each turn of the wheel her world altered. The oneness began to fade, the sameness became less pronounced. Talwyn's body betrayed her as it ached for another existence, while her mind was clouded with strange urges she could neither banish nor control. The intensity of the thoughts frightened her.
The mist grew thin, its once thick, fluffy whiteness revealing brief glimpses of worlds beyond its hazy veil. Worlds that Talwyn had not known existed and wished would fade from her view.
Even as her mind filled with dread, eagerness filtered through the thoughts of the Golden, the one thought linked and shared amongst them was now a jumbled array of many individual thoughts and emotions.
". . .The departure comes. It draws near. . ."
". . .Time has begun anew. The wheel has turned full circle. The season of change is upon us. . ."
". . .Soon we shall recall the feel of Mother Sun's caress upon our skin. . ."
". . .Aye, and the touch of land beneath our feet. . ."
". . .Soon. . ."
Talwyn's fear overwhelmed her. What was this change? What would happen to her when it arrived? Would it hurt? She knew nothing about the worlds beyond the mist. How would she survive?
"Hold no fear, little one," the oldest of them whispered near her ear. "I have lived long and have seen many worlds through the blessings of the change." The old one's thoughts touched Talwyn's own. "Let me show you."
Memories of a time beyond the mist filtered through the collective, giving name to places and things that before held no understanding for Talwyn. A vision of moonlight as it glittered off the surface of a calm lake left her breathless while the feel of a cool breeze against moist skin made her shiver. The blissful warmth of Mother Sun made her sigh, and the wonder of color made her smile.
Talwyn grew still as images filled her mind, visions of her kind as they stepped free of the mist and walked on land. Emotions washed over her in great waves and gave her understanding. The knowledge given eased her fear. Excitement claimed her and she found she longed for this change to arrive.
Time passed and the mist grew warmer. Its shimmering silver curtain of moisture began to fade. Soon rays of sunlight filtered through the haze and hinted of something more waiting just beyond the veil.
Colors seeped in where once only gray prevailed. Shades of reds and pale yellows splashed against the silver veil of the mist, followed by greens and blues and browns. So many colors from so many worlds, yet no one world called to the Golden. They floated on.
Each dawn the mist revealed another world, and each time the Golden turned away, until one dawn, Talwyn felt a stirring amongst them, an eagerness that awoke the same strange stirring within her.
A whisper sang through the fluffy softness that surrounded her, "Be ready."
The mist parted to reveal a world filled with colors. Hues of browns and blues, greens, reds, yellows nestled beneath sparkling white haze. The Golden trembled. This was the one. This world called to them. It would be the place of departure. Here, the changing would commence.
"Now, child." Her mother, Nia, clasped Talwyn's hand. "We will step free together, you and I, and together we will know the joy of self."
Where Lies Beauty
He looked upon the flower, to its dew-kissed bloom shimmering in the light of early morn. He traced the pad of his thumb across the delicate petals and downward along the contour of the curved thorn that hid amongst its pale green leaves.
He paused over the thorn's sharp point.
What was perfection without the shadow of fault? He pressed against the thorn. Its sharp point pierced his skin. When he withdrew his thumb, a bead of bright red blood lingered. Does beauty exist if the one who looks upon it cannot see its charm? Can beauty's light survive if hidden within the cloying mantle of darkness?
He could only hope this was so.He raised the bloom and inhaled deeply, taking in its unique aroma. "Bittersweet." His voice, though barely above a whisper, shattered the silence surrounding him. He was helpless to halt the sigh that escaped him. Within all beauty resides the remnant of its darker self. An unseen presence feared by most and shunned by all. A secret, locked away and closely guarded. Yet, within the ugliest of things, there remains true beauty. He did not believe one could exist without the other. It was a belief he would place all his hope upon.
He stared beyond the soft edges of the rose petals to the fading luster of a once vibrant land. The Hagath's touch crept ever closer, her vengeance seeking to destroy all memory of what once was, while tainting all in her path. Her laughter haunted the breeze—her glee, his great sadness. Soon, she would come for him. And with her arrival, his world would fade, leaving this realm without him. 'Twas the price he had agreed upon . . . to offer hope to the future and assure memory for the past.
Summoning the last of his light, he swept his hands before him. "Sleep, dream. . . and recall."
He laid the flower in the cradle of his palm and traced the tip of his finger along its fragile stem. "Within you lies hope. Guard your treasure well."
A single tear slid silently down his cheek and fell against the blood-red petals of the rose. His sadness weighed heavily upon him as he whispered, "And who shall shed a tear for me?"
Copyright© Sheri L. McGathy. All rights reserved.