The lake almost freezes. Never quite. Even in the heart of winter. But when the weather is fierce enough, in the snow-bundled heights of winter, the water will be floating with ice, silver while the sky is white, burning-cold to the touch.
And winter’s heart beats now.
The lake is an iceberg soup; or the surface is a sheet of broken glass. A patchwork of the two images, with a dusting of snow settled overtop. “We’re the people of the lake,” Jadda’s father once told her, “if the lake froze all the way through, our blood would freeze with it.”
Horrified, four years old, perched on a rickety stool and swallowing his words whole, unfiltered. Her chin rested in her palms, eyes moon-wide, taking everything in.
“Don’t worry,” he’d reach mess up her hair, “it’ll never happy. See, that lake, it’s bottomless.”
“Do the boys go diving in there every summer when it’s bluer than cornflowers?”
She nods, uncertain.
“Do they ever find the bottom?”
Shaking her head.
“They find wonders sometimes, but do they ever find the bottom?”
“And nor will they ever.”
He’s ten years gone now. That father. That bear-man she only remembers in images like that one. Stories told in front of a desperate, red-gold fire, while the storm rages just outdoors and while the cottage shakes with it. But her father went to the mountain, out hunting one day and never accounted for. Her mother even longer gone, having held her for only a few minutes before her breath failed. Her brother, the last to leave, with golden dreams in front of his eyes. Just footprints now. Buried tracks.
And so, that just leaves her.
“You should marry.” There are so many telling her that. Wise old matrons and girls her own age. Old men with cut-glass eyes. It doesn’t make sense to them for her to be out in the cottage alone, when the night could send half a dozen terrors – white wolves, cave bears, wights, wisps, wendigo. If you believe all of that.
And she looks at them, cross-bow on her lap, “I think I’ll manage.” A heavy, serrated, curved knife hangs on the wall. Her father’s once. Her father, then Dreok, taught her the basics of using it. And no wild monstrosity or half-starved bandit has yet come in through the door to test her skill.
“Well, you should marry.” Some of the young men put the same thing to her. Some of them out of concern. Others reeking with lust. Some not asking for marriage at all, just showing up on a night or two on the doorstop, tempting her to put the crossbow to use.
And maybe they’re right. But she holds out for something. Not Prince Charming. Not an elf prince slipping briefly into the mortal world to claim a prize. None of that. She’s perhaps just too accustomed to herself, her own ways, her own company. Who knows?
It’s the morning of Firenight. The heart of winter. And it’s a fitting day for it, flurries of snow, ice in the breeze that could freeze inside your lungs. Jadda fills her basket and heads down to the lake. The rafts are tied out there, piled up with logs wrapped in wool, soaked and herbed, sprinkled with dried petals. She jumps stepping stones as if she were a still a girl, and not a woman approaching her twentieth year. She crouches over the raft and spreads her share of summer’s petals. She makes her wishes in a whisper, before she tugs her shawl around her and heads back onto the shore.
“Are you coming tonight, Jadda?” One of the local lads calls to her.
Edrof…? Old man Aggrott’s fifth.
She resists an urge to keep walking. You’re not made for solitude, even if you think you are. “Yeah, I’ll come.”
“I’ll come find you.”
“You know I will. When did you last hear my life story?”
“Has it changed then?”
“I told you. I found a dragon’s egg last summer, when I dived the lake. Don’t you want to know what happened to it?”
“You buried it. Behind your barn.”
“I’m going to go home now to dig it up.”
“Don’t let it eat you.”
He flashes her a grin. “Not a chance. I’ll bring you a dragon steak.”
You’ll bring me a musty old crumbling waterlogged rock. Well, maybe. There have been times… in living memory…
“You watch your step up there, Jadda.”
“My step’s as good as anyone’s.”
She walks in her own footprints heading home, so that it looks as if a strange creature with directionless feet has come or gone this way. The trees are all heavy with snow, and she bats at the branches sometimes, just to watch it come tumbling down. Her cottage is small, a crouching hut made from thick stone, well-covered in moss and lichen, with a living thatch on its head. A small chimney silhouettes against a snow-white sky, the smoke barely dribbling out now.
She stoops to gather a new bucketful of snow and a basketful of firewood. There’s little enough inside. One bed, two stools, a fireplace, a kettle, a pot, a long shelf studded with hooks underneath, a couple of haybales for extra seating. Should anybody ever come to sit on them. A patchwork blanket. A wolfskin. A rug of crudely stitched sheepskins. It’s the sum-total of her life.
Jadda stokes the fire, puts the bucket nearby to melt the snow, and stirs the soup that waits in the pot. The cellar’s still well-stocked, with half the winter over already. She’s had to go it alone all these years, but she’s not gone hungry, and she’s not had to let any of those lecherous late-night visitors inside.
But she curls on the bed, looking up at the rafters, thinking as the night falls: Dreok, why couldn’t I have gone with you?
She goes down to the lake when it’s well dark. When she has to pick her way with caution, since the clouds are heavy, and the snow as black as the sky. At least until the she clears the ridge, and then she finds the sky pink, and the lake on fire. She’s arrived too late for the lighting of the rafts, but not too late to see them in their glory, with the herbs and fuels turning each one into a prismatic orgy. Every fire flickers with a rainbow of colours; sparks of different colour take off into the night sky. They replace the stars for a while.
Jadda heads down amongst the bonfires. There’s singing and dancing going on, hands clapping, waves of laughter heading off up into the sky. But she finds herself a place near the water and crouches there. She jams a honeyed winter apple onto a stick and holds it over the flames to watch it blacken; the air is heavy with the smell of roasting honey.
A time meant for sharing. And yet…
A shadow falls over her.
She thinks: Edrof. But she turns around to see a stranger standing there.
Firenight is a time for strangers. And it’s a time for those living in the wilds and outlying areas to seek company and shelter. It’s natural for wanderers and gypsies to come in from the hills. Even outlaws and bandits might find a welcome this night.
He could be a bandit. There’s something rough about him, and something that suggests distance. The burnished, soft-leather jacket he wears wasn’t made in the village, and his shoes for a certainty belong to a city.
“May I?” he asks her.
This isn’t a night to refuse, and so she gestures that he might join her. She offers him an apple and he takes one gladly. He has a flask of some foreign, strange liquor, which he offers her, and she accepts. He settles himself on the wet ground beside her.
“I’m not the best company, you know.” She ought to tell him.
“You don’t look so bad.”
“And I’m not inviting any man home to my bed.”
“Then I’ll not embarrass myself by asking. Might I have so much as a name?”
“A pleasure, Jadda. Well, we have all night. Who are you?”
Astonishing what tradition rules. And what it brings out in a person. She begins with her mother, with the sad story of how she sickened in pregnancy, how she neared the birthing hour knowing that she was unlikely to survive. How the man she loved grieved for her, half-forgetting the hungry little baby left in a cradle beside her. How that same man became a loving father to his second child and first daughter, how he discovered in himself a tenderness he didn’t know he had. And how he taught the daughter strength and courage, how he shared the woods with her and her brother. And how a storm came, and how he went out in it, braving wind and hail, because the cellars were low and the two of them were hungry. How day had turned into night and into day and then night again without his coming home until they understood that he never would again.
“And then there was Dreok. My brother. He belongs to the clouds – that’s how the old women would say it. His feet aren’t weighted, he just flies off. He was tough, brought up that way, but he couldn’t let go of his dreams. The mountain and the lake were never enough for him. He went diving every summer, deeper than most of them dared. He’d see glimpses of things before the weight and water almost had him, and he’d have to swim up again. But he never found anything to hold. No treasures.”
“And Lake Elfstan,” said the stranger, “It gives treasure. So I’ve heard.”
“It gives wonders. Treasure sometimes. Or a curse. Or a secret. Or it drowns you because you swim too deep, and you’re too stupid to turn back. Every now and then it does that too.”
He tilts his head, studying her. “You lost someone.”
“Everyone. But not that way.”
“How would you know what I am?”
“I’m listening, aren’t I? Your brother?”
“Restless. Disappointed. He figured there must be something out there in the world that he was missing. He made all his excuses. How he’d come back with a fortune – as if I’d spend it up here – and maybe a wife, and who knows what else? Almost had me believing in him. But I was fifteen, wasn’t I? Easily convinced to believe.”
“He left town?”
“On the eve of Spring. Five years ago. And that’s the last I ever saw of him.”
“And still you’re alone.”
Always the same thought. The same question. Why didn’t you marry? As if there could be nothing else in a girl’s life, in her mind, except the finding of a husband and the babies that must surely follow. She wasn’t sure she liked this man, was somewhat more sure she didn’t trust him. She was harder and blunter than good manners dictate: “Your turn.”
“I’m a traveller too. This urge to see the world, you mustn’t be too hard on it. Listen: there’s so much out there to see. What if I could tell you about still-living dragons, or cities that go on for miles, that crowd all four horizons at once. Building in some of them as big as trees. Or trees with red flesh. Or two headed beasts.”
“It’s like I say. I was young. I wanted to see it all and know it all. I set out for the coast. Have you ever seen the ocean?”
“It’s just a big lake.”
He shook his head. “Have you sailed on it?”
“I took a year on board a ship. I saw the see turn bright orange once. I was held prisoner once on an island where they buried us up to our waists. I watched them taking slaves from another land, and carrying them somewhere even further away. I came home and helped build a village in the wilderness. I helped dig up a statue of a man seventy feet tall. I witnessed the birth of a unicorn. Doesn’t anything impress you?”
“I knew that was hiding in you somewhere.”
“Not hiding. You’d just yet to be funny.”
“Well, it’s a beautiful world. And it’s ugly. And sweet. And hilarious.”
There was something. A moment of just the right light. She found herself looking up into his face, seeing it the way pink firelight presented it. She felt her heart quicken, and her breath catch. “Dreok?” Could five years change a man this much?
But he shook his head. “Not Dreok. I go by Kinsom, but I was named Aldebrayon by my mother. I knew him though.”
“On board one of the ships. I was sailor, he was soldier.”
“Dreok, a soldier?”
“He was…” no, gentle was the wrong word. And still. She’d never seen him lay a hand on anyone. He’d never laid one on her.
“He was in need of the silver. That’s how a lot of men end up that way. No shame in it. He was a good man. He was a friend. We met aboard a ship called the Undalaya. She was a warship heading out to Nutraere, crowded with men, boys and whores. Dreok was cheerful in the worst of weather. And kind. He came to help a boy who’d fallen from the rigging and needed his leg straightened. He told me he’d studied some medicine under a mentor he befriended on land. And he did a good job of the boy’s leg. He was simply and quietly spoken, he-”
“You say ‘was’ when you speak of him…”
“It’s not what you think. He was alive the last time I saw him, but our lives had taken a strange turn. We’d decided to travel together, once the ship docked. He talked about a sister, a sweet girl with honey-like hair and blue eyes. He worried for her, you see, alone. That he’d left her when she was still quite young.”
“She took care of herself,” Jadda muttered.
“But she drifted away from everybody around her.”
“Oh, did she?”
“It seems as if she did.”
“Well, he talked about her. How he’d not as much to bring her as he would like, but how he wanted to see her, make sure she was safe and well. How he intended to follow the River Ushelay, up to its source, to where she lived – he hoped, still. He asked me to come with him. I wanted to meet her… and to see the famous Lake Elfstan. And so.”
“Where is he then?”
“He’s gone. Not dead. But missing. A strange turn, like I said. We thought we could take a shortcut through the woods to save a day on the road. But we were warned to be careful in those woods, because you might easily stray into other woods. Strange ones, filled with gnawing, moving vines, and blighted, crazed animals and worse. We didn’t know we were in them until we didn’t know how to step back. And Dreok: he was there with me one minute, and gone the next. I searched. For days. Until I stepped back into the ordinary woods.”
“And you came here. What? So I’d know?”
“So you’d help me.”
And she stared.
“His only living family.”
“It means leaving. It means coming with me.”
“I don’t even know how I’d help, what to do…”
“Nor do I. We would have to discover this.”
“Did you promise him…?”
“I can give you a bed for tonight. Set off tomorrow. But I’ll sleep on the floor. If you thought his promise…”
She has her doubts. Leading him home. She does. And might it all be a trick to get her alone, so he could touch her and take her with nobody there to defend her rights? She has the knife and crossbow if it comes to that. Yet she thins it won’t. She does trust him. Somehow. Oddly. As if Dreok’s seal of approval is stamped somewhere on his unfamiliar face.
She feels a stab of guilt as she watches the rafts cut free and sent downriver, as she sees Edrof amongst those watching them. A half-golden, jagged globe rests heavy in his arms, it catches the firelight and must be a worthy chapter after all in his story. She won’t be here to hear it. She’ll be gone with the first light, leaving behind her thatched roof and her few belongings. Maybe to find Dreok. Or only to find whatever it was he’d gone searching for years ago. She doesn’t know. But maybe it’s the not-knowing that’s been the destination all along.
“It’s nice to meet you, Kinsom,” she says, as she leads him in her footprints, back home.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work.
Shameless marketing ploy: for more from the world of "Firenight" check out my e-book The Price of Blood: Book One of the Golwerra Stories