Author's Note: This short is written in first person, which is a departure for me... a bit of fun I had one day. While the story itself is official canon of the world's mythology, I would call this a "second draft". I have no doubt that I will make small changes throughout (both story-wise and technical... mostly technical) every time I take a look at it.
Also, it might be fair to note that this was not meant to be read before reading Eve of Snows, so, for some there might be spoiler bits.
“Little girls don’t survive in the woods.”
Those were words my mama hammered into my head from the time I first toddled, and tempered with tales to keep my feet from the underbrush.
I never did see no wolf, though I heard them singing some nights, and the witches were rarer still. But I believed. The woods terrified me, and I clung to mama’s hem every time we drew close.
I was five years old when she took me to them same woods in the dead of night. She kneeled, grabbed my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Run, Elilês. Don’t let your father and them priests catch you. Run, and never come back.”
I cried, argued, stomped, then I ran. My feet wanted to make a big loop, take me home to the only place I ever knew. My child’s mind tried to convince me I could hide under the floorboards, find comfort in the sound of their voices even if I could never let them see me again. The animal inside of me knew I needed distance and shelter to survive.
I ran until gasping and dropped beneath the prickling branches of an evergreen, a cedar by the scent, and pulled my blanket tight around my shoulders, the only feel of home remaining to me. I rocked and sobbed and muttered, “Not my fault, the fires ain’t my fault.”
It was a lie, but truth gave no peace.
By the time my tears dried I heard frantic wolves yapping; papa once told me the sound was one made after a kill. I didn’t know whether to find comfort in their bellies being full, or fear they were so close. I drug myself to my feet and walked opposite the terrible sounds until my legs would carry me no more. I squirmed through the branches of another cedar and climbed to find my bed for the night.
Winter was fading into spring, but I could see my breath cut by the needles of the tree. My fingers grew cold clutching branches, with only thin wool gloves covering my hands. My little friend arrived without my invitation; warmth seeped through my blanket and clothes between my shoulder blades.
“Go away. I don’t need you.” I spoke to them often, but never knew if they listened, or if they were alive in a way I understood. Sometimes they obeyed, sometimes they didn’t, just like the head strong cur who wandered the streets of the village sniffing for handouts.
The warmth disappeared, but it didn’t leave. My friend hovered before my eyes, invisible except for a ball of wavering mirage about the size of my fist. It was warmth within reach, comfort, but it was also the reason I dangled freezing in a tree to start with. The night grew colder, my lids heavier, and my fingers weaker. Clouds crossed the stars and promised rain. My anger at my friend faded with practical considerations.
It wasn’t the flame’s fault that Bunter and his horse-faced mother saw me with fire sitting on my finger like a baby chick. Burning their barn down was a another matter, but didn’t something in the back of my angry head ask for that too? I’ll admit, years later now, to such a notion.
I whispered, “All right, just a little fire.”
The wavering mirage turned into a wick’s flame hovering in the night and I grasped it, the glow turning my hand red and showing off the bones inside. It didn’t burn, it was a fluttering heat that eased the ache in my joints and spread through my body. I closed my eyes, savoring the moment, forgetting the glow spreading from the cracks between my red fingers.
“I’ve spotted her!” A lantern in the distance cast shadows of a hooded man in dark robes. Hounds bayed much further away.
My heart stuttered into a race and I descended quicker than intended, crashing through branches the last several feet, landing hard on my rump, jarring my spine to my skull. My friend went dark, but I could sense it by my ear as I rolled from beneath scratching branches and ran. I took the advantage of my short legs in the underbrush, ducking and weaving through gaps a big man couldn’t fit.
I cursed myself for a fool as I ran, recalling a tale papa told often about a brush with bandits and its obvious lesson: You can’t hide fire in the dark. My mind raced, searching papas hunting tales for more lessons, of wily critters that escaped him.
The big man ripped through bushes and vines, lumbering my way, crashing and cursing in the names of all the Twelve Hells. Slipping through the brush I was quiet and quick, but he was powerful and determined. I glanced back, the light of his lantern growing closer, and the world dropped from beneath me, and I fell, tumbling with snags of roots and broken branches. I sprawled face first beside a stream, and hope flashed, but I wasn’t some fox able to survive a swim in icy waters. The banks were too wide for me to jump, my lungs burned, and my body ached. If the hounds caught me, I might be torn to shreds before an inquisitor had the chance to cleanse my soul for the Seven Heavens.
I rolled to my back, lantern light casting shadows over the ravine’s bank as the holy approached. Priest or monk, it didn’t matter. He was the inquisitor’s man. I’d run further, but I’d never escape these men and their long legs. I imagined picking up a stick and fighting back, or my friend burning away this man like it’d defeated my fears when waking from terrors in the deep of the night. It was a mere thought.
Fire lit my face and streaked through the night fast as an arrow as my chaser hit the bluff of the ravine.
I jumped to my feet.
His robes caught fire.
Flames and shadows and shrieks.
“No! Don’t kill him!” I sprinted into the dark and in a flicker my friend was again by my ear.
Shouts gave us chase. “I’ll kill you, witch! Kill you myself!”
I can’t say if insight struck then as I ran, or later, as I wandered: Mama sent me into the woods because it’s where she thought I belonged, where the wolves and witches live. If given a chance I might’ve thanked her later, but I’d never have forgiven her.
The rains came after. Washed away tears and pursuit. The trees thinned and as the sun struggled to light the world behind heavy clouds, I stumbled into open ground gone soggy from the downpour. The heat of my friend gave me warmth against soaking cold, snuggled beneath my coat where I could stick my hands. I swiped streams of water draining over my brow in rivulets and wrung my hair.
The great forest I’d always imagined had come to an end, and as I looked back at the woods, a little of its mystique died. But it still held death, and it hunted me.
I slogged forward, the ground sucking at my boots ‘til I came across a wagon rutted road that was little more than two streams of mud with a grassy island running its middle. Roads lead to people, safety or doom, but my stomach growled. I followed right, taking me further from the wood.
I saw the donkey’s ears first, then heard the cussing. A big man stomped around a wagon, its wheels stuck in the muck. What he lacked in furor he made up for in creativity. “Son of a turd sucking toad poker!” He stopped to stare at me when he realized he and his two-donkey team weren’t alone. His hands went to two knives at his belt. “Where the Twelve Hells did you come from?”
I stared, a drenched kitten uncertain whether to purr or dash. Instead, I sobbed, shaking, on the verge of dropping to my knees. He raised his hands from his blades.
“I’m sorry, girl. Weren’t meanin’ to scare you.” He walked to me slow and kneeled, and hugged me. It was a soft man’s move, if I had a dagger even a child could find his kidney, but his softness broke my fear and I leaned into him. “It’s all right, child. Ain’t gonna hurt you. Nobody will, not now.”
I sniffled. “Elilês. I’m called, Elilês.”
He looked into my eyes and his nose crinkled, a corner of his lip lifting into a grin. “Your eyes are so brown, like my youngest, Zezzê.” It was peculiar, my eyes are blue, but it made no sense to argue, and the man faded into his thoughts. “Consumption took her and her brother some time ago… But that ain’t no conversation for a rainy morn, eh?”
I shook my head and he lead me to the wagon, fed me biscuits with honey butter. Ilpen was a tinker, his wagon full of copper ware and tools of his trade, and his tongue was full of glib words for a little girl lost.
With me at the reins encouraging Ears the Elder and Ears the Younger, we got loose the mud as the rains passed, but as the wheels rolled I couldn’t escape the question.
“What’s a wee girl doing out here alone?”
I sat as still as the buckboard allowed, wheel mill turning in my head. “I’m an orphan.”
He kept his tone tame as if speaking of a joke rather than serious matters. “If you were an orphan you’d know that ain’t story enough.”
“I just was.” Ilpen might’ve taken my lack of answer with a dollop of patience, but on the horizon men milled on horseback. I squinted but couldn’t tell who they were. “I need to run.”
Ilpen slowed the wagon. “You run and they’ll see.”
His arm swung over my back, he fiddled with a latch and lifted a door covering the wagon’s cargo. I slipped inside, elbows and knees rattling cups, plates, and other goods.
Running, hiding, climbing, falling in the woods terrified me, listening to the gentle clack of a latch locking me into a box with no escape sent spasms through my spine, my bladder more full of a sudden than when my cousin Tinlê and I wagered the last hard-honey on who’d sit the longest. A silly memory, and maybe that was its point.
I breathed deep and clinched my knees, praying to Janûel, goddess of love and war, even if it were the servants of the gods hunting me because I called fire without prayer. The wagon wobbled and banged on rocks in the road, and I held tight as we climbed the hill. I squirmed to a beam of light, peeping through a crack beneath Ilpen’s creaking weight.
But the splatter of hooves on wet turf came from behind. “Ho, merchant!”
I daren’t move, but oh how I wanted to find another hole to look through. There were three horses, maybe four.
Ilpen said, “I ain’t got time, no offense mind. I’m on road to Côerkin Fost, and then to Istinjôln, and I lost a week with a broken axle not far back.”
“We seek a girl, a youth.”
Ilpen chuckled. “You’ve found the wrong kind of wagon for those tastes, your holiness.”
A horse stepped in front of the wagon, all I could see was a leg in black trousers, forcing Ilpen to pull his reins.
“I trust you aren’t a man to hide a child wanted by the Church.”
“That’s excellent, you’ll be out of my way then, before more rains come.”
“You’ll be opening that wagon.” I no longer feared for only myself, my fire was going to get this kind man killed.
“Right you are! In the Fost and Istinjôln, feel free to follow me there, until then…” Ilpen snapped his reins and the donkeys fidgeted, but the horse didn’t budge. “Now gentlemen, I’ve entertained your little stop, but the Church has no authority on these roads, as it were.”
“An inquisition carries the authority of Sôl, king of gods.” I knew little of Sôl or the gods, my family had never been pious folks, but I did know the power of prayer. I’d seen wounds knit before my eyes, and seen a man turned into a blithering dalcop because he dared insult a priest. Some holies even commanded fire through the power of prayer. If these holies turned the power of the gods on this man, his two knives might never leave their sheaths before he fell.
Ilpen’s voice raised, I figured in desperation or fear. “Were we in Istinjôln I’d succumb, but this road is kept by Clan Côerkin.” I thought to call out, admit to my fires and pray with the inquisitor for a safe trip over the Road of Living Stars before my execution, and plead for this man’s life, but the words were choking in my fear dried throat. Not for an instant had I thought the tinker knew what he was doing until I heard hooves coming down the hill, spreading to surround the wagon.
The horse blocking the road pranced, perhaps as nervous as me.
“Ilpen of Estedên, is that you?”
“Aye, I were in a bit of a hurry ‘til interrupted, too. How’s your bride?”
The holy in front snarled. “This is business of the Church and Istinjôln.”
But the new arrival ignored the man in black. “Dead. For three years.”
Ilpen answered, “Sad news. No new mistress?”
I couldn’t tell how many new riders had arrived, I was guessing six, but I had no way to know. Papa always said a holy was worth two swords, maybe more, with their prayers. Voices were tight as bowstrings but the words remained pillows. I wondered how many men would die today because of me.
Saddle leather creaked, but I didn’t see a thing. “Little Sister here is the closest to my heart, but despite her name, she’s more a daughter to me. Only sixteen and she can put an arrow through a wolf’s snarl.”
A woman chimed in. “You’ve caught the Wolverine in a good mood after a rain, normally I’m the brat lass.”
My heart thudded and my eyes flicked back and forth nervous with hope. Everyone knew of the Wolverine, head of the Wardens, whose word carried the law of the Côerkin themselves.
The man in black spoke, “Inquisition’s been chasing a defiled girl since last night.”
“Hear that, Little Sister? These two-faced boys huntin’ a girl for using magic just like them.” There were chuckles all around, saddles groaned and horses stomped. It was an unbearable insult, comparing feral magic to prayer. I couldn’t see the rage, but I knew the tension pushed toward blood. There was nothing for it now, not from me, that would stop it. It was a strange relief.
The man in black’s voice was stern. “We saw a passenger—”
The Wolverine said, “My friend Ilpen says he ain’t seen no girl, he ain’t seen none.”
Ilpen spit, the buckboard rocking as his weight shifted. “Nothin’.”
The inquisitor’s horse turned to face the wagon straight on. “That a fact.”
The Wolverine said, “It is now he done said it.”
Little Sister whistled and giggled. “See there how easy that was? All settled.”
A queer silence fell: nothing creaked or groaned, and not even the animals twitched. I didn’t know what came next, a storm or warm breeze.
The inquisitor’s legs squeezed his horse and moved him from the road. “I look forward to shopping your copper in Istinjôln.”
Several horses departed, and as men chuckled to celebrate the passing tension, the Wolverine said, “You’re a helluva tinker but a damned poor liar.”
“What, you got interest in some poor girl too?”
The Wolverine guffawed. “You think I give two pisses about some defiled lass?”
The latch rattled and the lid lifted. “Come on out, girl.”
I crawled from the dark surrounded by a dozen Wardens bearing expressions ranging from disinterest to nervous. The Wolverine grinned through a thick black beard, a barrel-chested man in his forties covered in mail and a bear-skin cloak. “What’re ya girl, four, five? Pretty li’l thing. So what’d ya do, heal your ma’s cyst or some such?”
I shrugged, wishing for something so kind. “Uh-huh,” I said, but my eyes burrowed holes in the ground. I was a worse liar than the tinker.
“Be honest, girl. I ain’t killed no priest for their prayers, I ain’t gonna hurt a child for nothin’.”
“Fire,” I blurted, and hid my face in Ilpen’s side, peeping at his reaction.
The Wolverine straightened his back and his brow arched. “When you’re sixteen look me up, child, we could use you in the mountains in the winter.”
Men laughed, but I looked to Little Sister. She was a slender gal with a round face and crooked nose, but pretty in her way. She smiled and winked at me before addressing the Wolverine. “We’d best ride with ‘em back to the Fost.”
The Wolverine nodded. “Hear that boys? Little Sister already runs this outfit.”
After the humor passed the Wardens spread out, six to the fore and six behind. I glanced to Ilpen, he hadn’t a word for me yet, and I had no idea what the man thought of me now. “Thank you.”
He grunted. “You shoulda told me.”
I didn’t doubt he was right. “I’m sorry. There wasn’t time.”
“There were time, try to hornswoggle me.” Silence stretched for what felt an hour, more, before he spoke again. “Ain’t no way I can take you on as my own, you know, inquisitors don’t give up so easy. Fire, you say.” All I could was nod or shrug as he talked. “They’ll hunt you down and kill you, they claim to find all them defiled by the vanquished gods. Hard to hide, I’m supposin’.”
“Papa always said you can’t hide fire in the dark.” Defiled? I didn’t believe it when the inquisitor spoke them words, I didn’t believe it now. I’d heard the phrase in stories told by my folks. The vanquished gods, defeated in the God Wars, cursing mortals with unholy feral magic. “I ain’t defiled, the fire’s my friend, that’s all.”
He snorted and we rode without words, the song of hooves and wheels, creaking boards and saddles, our accompaniment. Until Ilpen hollered to the Wolverine. “We need cut straight away to Istinjôln.”
The broad-shouldered man turned in the saddle. “The monastery? You looking for a reward or somethin’?”
“Whoa, hells no.” Ilpen turned to me with a smile. “The best place to hide fire is in fire.”
I didn’t like the notion of riding to Istinjôln Monastery any more than being outcast from my home in the first place. Less in fact, but Ilpen was dead convinced he’d get me safe.
Six Wardens, including Little Sister, her real name was Puxelê, rode escort north to Ervinhîn, a village nestled in the foothills of ice covered mountains. Here I hugged Ilpen and his donkeys goodbye as they continued on to Istinjôln. I wouldn’t see him again for a year and a half, and every year after during the festival of the Eve of Snows.
After a month in Ervinhîn, where everybody came to know me as an orphan, a local man called Serik escorted me to Istinjôln. The monastery was an ancient fortress, with towers higher than I’d dreamt, and a great portcullis to keep invaders and riffraff like me out. My guide introduced me as his orphaned cousin, the gates opened, and minutes later I was greeted by a priest in black robes, his hood lined in red silk. He was a man in his fifties with a gentle smile filled with yellowed teeth.
“You’re from the tinker’s village?”
I knew then I’d met the man intended. “Yes.”
His hands slipped into the bells of his robes and he took me to a small building. A woman in a monk’s brown robes opened the door as we approached. The room was bare, lit by a single lantern. He turned to me, his face grave. “My name is Darêun.” He looked me over, and I quivered, ashamed. “Are you certain you seek the priesthood?”
I shrugged. I didn’t, truth be told. “I could try to be a holy.”
Bushy brows over gray eyes showed his mirth. “Your first lesson is that the followers of the Pantheon of Sôl are called adherents, not holies.”
I nodded with an embarrassed grimace. It was a silly word, I’d much rather have been called a holy.
He bowed his head, his lips moving in prayer with a mutter I didn’t understand. He reached out and a ball of fire appeared in his palm. I felt its warmth in my spirit, not just on my skin, and smiled at him for the first time.
“Go ahead, Elilês. You’re safe.”
My little friend brushed my hand before igniting, circled the priest’s fire before dancing in and out of its flickers.
“Fascinating.” Not a hint of fear wrinkled his cheeks. My flame went dark and disappeared, and his prayer followed suit. “Before I decide, I must hear your story.”
I looked into Darêun’s solemn eyes through my tears and recounted my tale as I have for you, but in the words of a child. Instead of cursing me to one hell or another, he smiled. “You’ve the green eyes of my sister”—peculiar, seeing as my eyes are blue, but I didn’t think to argue—“which softens a man’s heart. I’ve watched a hundred children or more marched through these gates by inquisitors to be cleansed of their sins with not a one ever leaving, and each left a pain in my heart. Your father was correct, it’s impossible to hide fire in the dark, and Ilpen too showed simple wisdom, fire may be hidden in fire.”
He stood and clutched his hands behind his back, gazing on me from high. “But fire in fire may burn doubly hot, killing us both. Are you prepared to bear the heat?”
My first memory was of fire and heat, the tickle of its playful licks on the back of my hand. And what choice did a little girl have? “Yes. Are you?”
He chortled and mussed my hair, and I loved him from that moment. Neither of us could’ve imagined the prophetic in his words, but I suspect neither of us would’ve chosen a different path.