Anise clung to her father's tunic as they moved through the dark of the crowd. Torchlights cut swathes of yellow here and there, illuminating the snow and patches of ice, and catching the clouds of breath all about them, as they moved to Street of the River where they might see out over the Char. The voices around her were solemn, proud. This was the Night of Fey Lights. For over three hundred years the tradition had been kept. As winter's first snows lay piled on the city, the citizens of King's Home, dressed against the penetrating cold, would gather by the river on the third day of Frostmonth to wait and to watch.
Every child knew the story. Those many lives ago, brave explorers set out to the north to seek out the source of the sky's yearly display, the spectral and haunting Curtains of Spirit Fire, whose silent, waving, curling presence lit the dreams of children and adults alike. Green, red, yellow, blue, the lights in the sky were spoken of in myths and old wives' tales, yet no one had ever dared to travel so far into the north to seek their fuel, to prove or disprove the stories told on grandmother's lap or heard on bended knees in the Temple of the Great Mother or Church of the All Father.
Her father knelt and lifted Anise onto his broad shoulders. She could barely get her legs wrapped around the thick fur and tunic clasped and tied at his neck, but she managed to claim purchase, holding with her gloved hands onto to the thick wolf's fur trimming of his hood at the level of his bearded jaw.
"Can you see, then, Ani," he asked her. She watched his breath, billowing outward, drift away.
"Aye," she said. "I can, Father."
She could not see the mages. They were down there, somewhere by the frozen water of the Char, prepared for the ritual. Her father had found a good spot, affording her a clear view to the north from the height of the street-side balcony. Some few flakes of snow fell from the depthless blank dark of the invisible sky. It had snowed off and on all day, and the air was crisp with the season's never-ending chill, making her cheeks and nose burn. As night wore on, it would get colder yet, and Anise wondered how long they were to wait for the lights to come. She craned her head about to look back on those around her. She spied two other children, also hoisted onto parental shoulders. There was no way to tell who they were, as everyone was similarly dressed against the cold. It was the cold that had, until this year, kept her from attending. This year, her father had deemed her hearty enough to withstand the razor-edged breeze; this year, it was not a blizzard or cold snap or ice rain. This year, she could finally partake in her city's second most somber tradition.
The sound of ice cracking like nearby lightning brought her head back around quickly. It was beginning. She could hear, very faintly above the shuffling and murmuring crowd, the mages reciting their spells. And down there, she saw the ice rending itself asunder in a jagged line to the north, a chasm of roiling black water growing wider by the second. Then the voice, magically amplified, spoke from the Tower of King Watch as, in single file, a line of nine pirogues came into view, each bearing fairy lights that dimly illuminated, as from within, the ghostly bodies of the dead returning home.
The voice said, "In the Year of the White Bane, 932, in the Reign of King Onelaas, Son of King Karele and Father of King Dursaan, after three years absence, did the remains of twelve brave explorers return to King's Home upon the River Char…."
Every child knew the story, and every adult revered it. The return of the dead was both good fortune and tragedy, and all the land's history changed after it. The dead, as discovered by astonished watchmen and those drawn to the riverside by their shouts and horns, had been reverently wrapped in animal skins, polished onyx chips set upon their empty eyes, their hands made to clasp either weapon or tool of trade upon their breast. No one knew how this might have come to pass, nor what circumstance might have preceded it. But in the late spring that followed, the first Northerman made his way to the King's Isle to tell the tale of the twelve who died, and in so doing to introduce the Kingdom to the Clan of the Snow Bear. In their death, in other words, the adventurers had accomplished something unexpected.
"…They had not divined the source of the Curtains of Spirit Fire, but they had, unknowingly, revealed the people of that faraway land, who ever after were called Northermen in the common tongue, and Ruuben Aurorals in the King's language, for the red gold of their hair…."
But the tragedy was twofold. In the wake of the loss of the twelve, much speculation circulated among the people as to the circumstances of the adventurers' deaths. King Onelaas and his top advisors, Gery Stonecrafter, called Guard Supreme, and Head Minister Perlin Hathaway, welcomed the stranger from the north, and bore witness to his story as it was rightly interpreted by a mage's magic quill. They were moved by the generosity and reverence of these people in the north, and the tall, bearded man was offered the freedom of the realm and his time of rest.
Kellik Drolvfsin was the stranger's name. Anise knew his statue well, as it stood at the common well as an eternal reminder to the people, for it was there that he was set upon by a mob who supposed he and his people were guilty of murdering the adventurers. The speculation that had festered in darkened rooms, spurred by drink and the suspicion of those who in their natural fear would never venture far from home, blossomed in violence, and Kellik, taken by surprise, was given unjustly to death under a sky filled with angry cries and blind condemnations.
"…How many lives may be enslaved to saddest death by the shameful ignorance of a few?"
Those many lives ago, the war came in the wake of those thirteen deaths like a plague, for the Northermen were a people of blood honor, and the murder of Kellik was a terrible insult and crime to them. Within two seasons of his death the first Northermen army arrived, and they arrived without pity for the Kingdom's innocent.
"The White Bane passed only with the culling of nine thousand souls from the Kingdom's heart. When at last the anger of the Northermen was sated, and the wretched fools who'd laid Kellik Drolvfsin low had been themselves laid low, the great King Onelaas himself journeyed to the chieftain's throne to sue for peace everlasting, and so was peace at last secured," the voice said, and fell silent.
So long ago, these events, Anise thought, yet never might the lesson grow weak with age. The pirogues were now empty, and the fairy lights gone, yet as if on cue the lights in the sky appeared, green and gold, through a break in the heavy clouds to the north. People stood in silence, staring at the undulating veils of light, their eyes seeming to pierce the veil of history.
"Shall the story always be told, Father," Anise asked, as her father gently let her down and knelt before her.
Looking up into her wide, blue eyes, he smiled a serious smile. "For as long as the Kingdom lasts, my daughter, it shall be remembered so." She gazed at him and nodded. "Come along, then. You've seen and heard what there is to see and hear, and now you may reflect on it as you will. But it is time for us to return home and have bison stew in honor of the Northerman, Kellik Drolvfsin."
"I know, Father," she said, and they walked back along Street of the River to their own little Apple Way and thence home, where her mother set before her a bowl of the hearty, fragrant stew, beside which she set two hot rolls dripping with sheep's butter, and a mug of steaming cider with a spice stick lazily drifting around its lip.
That night, drifting off to sleep, she thought her secret thoughts that she dare not share with anyone. One day, she would go north and see the home of the Northermen, and then she would go farther north, and farther still. For no one had yet found the fuel of the Curtains of Spirit Fire, which the Northermen claimed to arise from beyond the edge of the world itself, and to belong to the realm of gods and the dead. One day, she thought, smiling in the warm darkness of her little room, she would find out the truth. It didn't matter if anyone else knew. But she would find out.
Through her window, the green light glowed and faded, and then the clouds closed in again and the snow returned to blanket the world once more. She dreamed a stranger spoke to her, its face hidden in the depths of a cowl, but its eyes, like a cat's, glowing within. In the morning, when she rose and gazed out at the snow covering everything, she could not remember anything the stranger said, but she felt her breath catch in her throat as she spied a black cat gazing up at her. The moment her eyes locked with the cat's, it turned and in three swift, agile bounds—vanished from sight.
Tharia: Roads to Adventure by James Pomeroy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.