Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Where the Winter Goes

Once there was a hard-working farmer who had a fierce, lively daughter.  When his wife died and he was beside himself with grief, this daughter Mya kept his hands busy with farm work and his mind busy with memories of their lost loved one.  When he grew older, she took up some of his share of the outside chores so that he might keep on his feet for a while longer.  And each winter, when he fell ill with an awful fever and a harsh cough, she nursed him back to health and kept his spirits bright.
Then came a winter when the fever was at its worst and the cough so rough it sprayed blood from the farmer’s mouth.  It was a winter of great wind, deep darkness, and the kind of cold that can freeze your eyeballs in their sockets just for looking outside.
“Daughter, I fear I’ve seen too many winters,” the farmer said from his sickbed.  “This will be my last.  You must tend the farm and when you meet a man to make your husband, care for him as you’ve cared for me.”
This perspective of gloom and doom did not sit well with Mya.  “I’ve kept you going for too long to give you up for winter’s dead,” she said.  “If winter wants you, it will have to come through me.  I’ll put an end to this wicked season and then we can tend the farm together, like always.  You’ll live, father.  You’ll see.”
“Wait!” the farmer called, but his headstrong daughter was already charging outside, where the voices in the wind whipped all other voices from her ears.
“Winter!” she shouted from the middle of her father’s frozen field.  “Come to my land!  I challenge you!”
The wind whistled and Mya heard no words, but she thought there was a snickering in the air.  Perhaps some neighbor had heard her outlandish call or some spirit wanted to make mischief of her.
“Winter, I call you coward!  Too afraid to face a mere mortal!”
“Lord Winter is not afraid,” said the wind from all around.  “He is too great to even see you.  Would you notice the challenge of an insect?”
“I would,” Mya said.  “And I would accept, and crush the creature if necessary, but at least I would stand to the challenge.”
The wind laughed at her.  “Intriguing.  Then follow me, dear girl.  Follow me to the home of my lord, the bringer of cold, the king with the frozen crown, the one who wears the mantle of winter upon his shoulders.  Follow, if you can.”
With that, the wind blew wordlessly and the snickering surrounded Mya.  She couldn’t tell from which way it came.  There was no direction, no path to follow, and she feared she would lose her chance to save her father.  The wind could not be seen, she knew, and no rain would come to hint its way for months.  She tried wetting a finger in her mouth, but her spit froze around her skin the moment the finger emerged and hardened it into blackness.
“There’s rain all around,” she said, looking at the ground.  “It’s only frozen.”  She grabbed a clump of snow and tossed it into the air.  The scattering flakes caught the wind’s tail and showed Mya a path to the northeast and Mya chased close behind.  She ran through fields of snow and hopped across stiff streams of ice, heading northeast, then north, then farther north, until the flying snowflakes mixed with those of a terrible blizzard roaring down from an enormous mountain.
“So, you made it,” the wind said.  “Well done.  You’ll find my lord at the top of the mountain, where the cold is cruelest, though I warn you, girl, you may not make it so far.  I am not Lord Winter’s only servant.”
The wind’s words drifted away and it began to whistle a cheerless tune, ominous and slow.  Mya whistled the tune in return, and together she and the wind whistled their way to a sheer cliff face, where icy steps—each hardly a toe’s length—formed a perilous path upward.
“An excellent place for a coward to hide,” Mya said.  She put the toe of one shoe onto a step, for that was all that would fit, and then put another shoe on the next step, and then moved to the next, and soon she was several feet up the cliff, her fingers gripping the steps that sloped up and above her feet.  The wind laughed again and then emptied itself from the cliff, leaving Mya alone in the stiff air.
She went on whistling anyway and climbed the cliff step by awful step.  Although every glance upward said she had made no progress, putting a newfound weariness through her body, a glance downward said she had come along way, though it put a newfound fear in her heart.  She refused to give up on this chance to save her father and kept climbing despite all the turbulence inside her and around her.
“The mountain is not the most wicked of servants that Lord Winter coul have,” Mya said.  “It sits still and behaves itself.”
“Indeed,” said a voice that was not from the wind.  “But I am in no mood for behaving tonight.”
Mya looked every which way for the source of this new voice and saw not a soul.  Then darkness clouded her sight and she saw nothing at all.  She was blind, clinging to the side of the cliff, with a long way down and a longer way to go.
“What is this?” Mya asked.  “Have you eaten the stars and moon?”
“No need,” answered the darkness.  “I have eaten your eyes.  Should you climb to the top without sight, you’ll not need to avert your gaze from Lord Winter.  I’m certain a feisty girl such as yourself would find it hard to respect this custom without my assistance.  You’re welcome.”
“I will not respect a coward’s customs and I will not respect your lord!”  Mya could bluster all she wanted, but she did not have the means to carry on at the moment.  She felt for the steps above, but had no confidence in each handhold or foothold.  When one hand found an open rim on the side of the steep steps, she inched toward it and sat herself in an open cave on the cliff face.  There she rubbed at her eyes, opened them, closed them, and tried waving her hands in front of her face.  It was no use.  Darkness had taken her, and if she couldn’t find a way onward, darkness would keep her until she died in this cave.
“I will make you a bargain, girl,” the darkness said.  “Renounce your challenge and return to your father.  Then I will grant you half your sight.”
“If I give up so much, what’s the point?” Mya asked.  “I may as well press on and win it all.”
“You have no idea what you’ve already given up.  Take this bargain.  Seal it in sound promise and go home.”
Mya’s hands patted for the cave’s rim and she found the steps once more.  If a servant of Lord Winter was willing to treat with her, then the lord had something to lose.  She began to climb, and this time she could not look down and feel fear or look up and feel weary.
A few steps onward, her feet slipped, leaving her dangling over the cliff’s drop.  She pulled them up and tried again.  With every ascending movement, the cliff grew colder and she at last could not feel her hands and feet touching the steps.  All she had left was the empty air, a silent death surrounding her.  It gave her no hint of where she was.  She wanted to cry, but couldn’t let herself.  Her face would freeze beneath the tears and that would be the end of her, if this wasn’t her end already.
Slowly, as if only remembering its notes as each one flew from her lips, Mya began to whistled the wind’s cheerless tune.  At first it rang hollow and didn’t move far past her ears, as songs will do in wintertime.  Then the wind picked up the melody and it soared up and down the cliff, echoing through the air, touching every rock, every tree, every upward step in Lord Winter’s domain.  Together, Mya and the wind whistled up and up and up, as if the whistle told her the way.
In no time, there was no step to grasp and Mya’s hand flopped onto the top of the cliff.  Her path stretched forward, not upward, though she could not see where it led.  Her shoes crunched snow and then clacked on stone, and just when she thought the air couldn’t grow any colder, it warmed her face and hands.  Mya went on whistling, fearing the wind would leave her, and the ominous tune echoed through a grand room that she could not see.
“Who dares trespass on winter itself?” a great voice boomed from ahead.
“Your greatest threat,” Mya said.  “A blinded, half-frozen, nine-fingered girl who has climbed your mountain to save her father.  Pull back your season at once so that he can live.”
A mighty breath filled the chamber, ousting the whistling wind.  “You have challenge a part of nature.  It is only right that you pay.”
“You won’t feel that way when I’ve bit off your finger and darkened your eyes.  If you had a father, I’d threaten his life too.”
Someone paced close to Mya now, but she could not see him.  “You’ve come with no weapons, no authority.  Nothing.”
“I have teeth.  You’ve not frozen them out of me yet.”
“Your teeth can’t defeat winter itself.  Your determination can’t turn the seasons.”  The speaker’s breath was close to her ear.  “But it can distract you from your dying father, who couldn’t be saved even if a day of spring warmed his bones and calmed his soul.”
Mya balled her frosty fists and stamped her feet.  “You do not know my father.”
“But I know distraction.  I know that I play games with my season to distract myself from its inevitable end.  When something is finite, you must treasure it, stay close to it.  I can battle the spring all I want, but it will still come.  Likewise, you can give yourself one impossible task after another, but eventually your father is going to die, and you won’t have been there when it happens.  Neither will you have been there before the death, when he needed you.”
Mya shook her head.  She could not cry, not out in the winter cold.  “I promised him I would put an end to this wicked season that’s made him sick year after year.  How can I return a failure?”
“We all do, some days.  He will be happy you’ve returned at all.”  Fingers snapped and the room grew windy.  “Servant, return her to her place and tell the darkness to undo what he has done.”  A hand touched Mya’s slowly-warming face.  “Take on all the impossible tasks you want when he’s gone.  Challenge me and I will crush you, if that is your pleasure after his death.  But no sooner.”
Mya’s face went chilly with a sharp wind, so cold she couldn’t feel her own breath inside her, and then the darkness cleared and warmth returned.  When she opened her eyes, she saw her farm, but not as she left it.  Sunshine spread over the field where grass grew on the edges and soil waited to be plowed.  Birds sang, rivers ran, and Mya ran too, all the way to her house.
“How long was I gone?” she cried.  “How much time have I missed?”
“Fear not,” the wind sang in her ears.  “It isn’t truly spring.  Lord Winter is no quitter.  He has only granted a day of it.  Only a day, for a certain reason.”
Mya found her father still in bed, scarcely able to breathe.  She held his hand and hoped he wouldn’t notice the frostbitten finger.  For better or worse, he was beyond noticing much at all.  Except her.
“You came back,” he said.  “I was afraid.  I’m still afraid.”
“Don’t be,” Mya said.  “I won’t leave your side again.”
And she didn’t.  Hours passed.  She held his hand and told him of her journey, and her feelings, and they talked of her mother, and they laughed and cried, but no one’s face was frozen.  Then as the hour grew late, her father did not laugh or cry anymore, and Mya cried a bit longer.  When at last she stopped, she heard a familiar voice outside.
“You must dig the grave now,” the wind said.  “Before the snow returns to your land and the ground hardens.  It is only a day he’s granted.  Only a day.”
Mya nodded, hauled her father’s frail body into her arms, and carried him outside, where she began to dig.  As she drove the shovel into the soil, the wind whistled its cheerless tune, and did not stop until the digging and burying were done.  Mya was alone when winter reclaimed the land, throwing a soft snowfall into the air.
After a moment, she began to walk.  First northeast, then north, and then farther north.  A challenge needed answering.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Cobbler of Kings

Long live the king, they say.  It is said when a king is made, and a king is usually made when another king dies.  So was the case in one kingdom, in one castle town, where the lords and ladies of the king’s court stood around the king’s corpse.  There were tears and grieving to be sure, and a kingdom mourned, but there was scheming about as well, for this king had no heir.  No son, no daughter, no living queen to take the throne, no brothers or sisters, and thus no nieces, nephews, cousins, and there seemed to be no bastard, for this king was a loyal king and a good man.
The task fell to the lords to decide who would be the new king, for these weren’t barbaric times where each earl and duke waged war with his own private army, and instead they warred with words and insults and promises.  After seven days of slander and seven nights of whispered rumors, a lord was chosen to serve as king, and the war of words was over.
But another, Lord Duntuss, warred in his heart, warred with battle drums instead of heartbeats, and inside every percussive note came the same chant: “It should have been me, it should have been me, it. Should. Have. Been. ME.”
And so the war in his heart went on for all of an hour before Duntuss was in agreement with himself.  He was going to be the next king.  He only needed to find a way.
It is unwise to go asking around town asking people, “How do I usurp a king’s throne?”  Most folk don’t have an answer and they’re likely to tell a soldier or a guard in hopes of receiving a royal reward.  Lord Duntuss had to play this cleverly.  He asked a madwoman.  She was said to have been a fairy’s child, but no court could prove it, and so she wasn’t yet banished.  No one would believe a word from her lips—they never had before—and if she was of the fair folk, then perhaps Duntuss would learn something useful.
“Madwoman,” he said when he found her.  “A question for you.  How would your fairy relatives suggest a man become a king?”
“That’s easy,” the madwoman said.  “He should be a king’s son, preferably firstborn, but if he’s not, there are ways around that.”
“Anything else?”
“I hear tell you can be the king of your head if you wish.  I also hear you can make offerings to the bandy man in the king’s woods who will swap you and the king on a great hunt.  Or perhaps you’ll try the cobbler with the enchanted fingers—they say if he makes you a pair of shoes, you’ll be the man they’re meant for.  Even if they were meant for a king.”
Lord Duntuss wasn’t about to become the mad king of his own mind and though he didn’t know what a bandy man was, he wasn’t about to consort with some otherworldly creature.  But a cobbler was another story.  A cobbler was a mortal man, who needed money for mortal needs, and Lord Duntuss had a great deal of money.   Moreover, cobblers were harmless.  They lacked the mischief of the fair folk and the madness of the hatters.  The lord gave the madwoman a coin for her advice and directions to this cobbler’s home, and off he went.
The cobbler lived in a cozy little hut, nestled in the wall of the town.  He sat on a two-legged stool, weaving thread into one sole and hammering nails into another.  Anyone who knew a lick about cobbling would see this and say, “There’s a gifted man, who can work two kinds of shoes at the same time, one with each hand.”  Lord Duntuss knew nothing of cobbling except that you put feet in the result.
“Good day, cobbler,” Lord Duntuss said.  “I hear you have enchanted fingers.”
“Some would say so of my skill,” the cobbler said.  He was an old, humble man, but his fingers appeared spry and firm, as if plucked from a younger man’s hands.
“I hear also that you can put me in a king’s shoes.”  The lord smiled.  “I would very much like to walk a king’s footsteps.  Is this a part of your fingers’ enchantment.”
The cobbler stopped his weaving and hammering and looked into the lord’s eyes.  “If I cobble you a king’s pair of shoes, their lining so soft you’d think I stole it from the clouds, then yes, you would walk in king’s shoes and leave a king’s footprints, and you would be kingly.  Still, this would not make you a king any more than planting a dragon’s soles under your feet would make you a dragon.”
“Kingly men are kings,” Lord Duntuss said.  “I will pay you to make these shoes and pay you more to make them before any others.  Do we have an agreement?”
Of course they had an agreement, for the cobbler needed good pay and good-paying clients.  He toiled through the night, measuring and cutting and stitching, until at last Lord Duntuss had a pair of king’s shoes in which to stick his un-kingly feet.  He paid the cobbler and walked out in his new shoes.
Whatever enchantment worked through the cobbler’s fingers had worked its way into the shoes, for Lord Duntuss did indeed feel kingly.  He walked with a king’s tired but royal posture and strode with a king’s confidence, all the way to the castle.  There he stood in court, tall and mighty, and yet he was not the man sitting on the throne, nor was he the man being pestered for favors and justice.  He was simply a lord who wore shoes that were too good for him.
“These shoes are a cheat,” the lord said when he returned to the cobbler.  “I felt kindly, true, but no one acknowledged my kingliness.”
“You aren’t the king, are you?” the cobbler asked.  “I told you, the shoes cannot make you king.”
“The sense of power was there, but I wasn’t compelled to take it.”  An idea fell like a stone from the sky into Lord Duntuss’s head.  “I have it.  Something you said earlier, about wearing a dragon’s soles?”
“They would not make you a dragon,” the cobbler said.
“But they would make me feel like one.”
“I suppose so.”
“Then that is your next commission,” the lord said, clapping his hands.  “I want shoes made of dragon hide.  A dragon has the presence to take a simple throne.”
The cobbler sighed.  “That would be a hard hide to fetch.”
“Then you can’t do it?”
“Of course I can.  But it will cost you.”
Cost was no concern for Lord Duntuss.  He tossed coins by the shovelful at the cobbler’s feet.  What were his family riches when he would be king, wearing ruby-crested rings on his fingers and a crown on his head?  The royal treasury would be his.  He was told to go home and come back in three days, which he did, and when he returned, he found the cobbler exhausted, bruised, and covered in a light coat of ash.
“Did you get the hide?” Lord Duntuss asked.
“It took some bartering, but it is here and the boots are finished,” the cobbler said.  He handed the lord his most prized work yet, a pair of boots fashioned from a dragon’s own hide.
The lord slipped his feet inside them and left the cobbler’s home.  Now he walked the street as a man possessed with pride, his gait so firm he forced others to alter their paths around him.  He marched to the castle, into the court, into the throne room, and strode boldly past the guard, acting so much like they didn’t existence that for a moment the guards themselves believed it.  Lord Duntuss took the king by his robe and shook him out of his throne.  Then he sat and looked over the court like a man sizing up a plate of mutton.
“It’s exactly right that I should be here,” he said to himself.  “Exactly right.”
Exactly right lasted only the moment it took the guards to realize they had let a man throw their king to the floor, and if they wanted to keep their necks from being stretched, they would make this right.  They shook Lord Duntuss out of the throne, and out of his dragon boots too, and into the dungeon he went for attempting to usurp the throne.
There he waited, no king, no dragon, just a man with too much ambition.  His heartbeat quickened, but it had no war to wage inside, for now its rhythm said, “It should have been me, but it will never be.”
A day passed, and then another, and the lord thought they might forget about him.  Then a priest came to the dungeon and told him he would be executed—treason against a man’s king could not be excused, not even to a new king.
Lord Duntuss waved the priest away.  “I need no holy man.  Get me the cobbler.  The cobbler with the enchanted fingers!”
Another day passed before the cobbler was brought to the lord’s cell, and it happened to be only a day before his execution.  “You called for me, lord?” the cobbler asked.
“No lord now,” Duntuss said.  “They’ve taken my riches, my lands, and they’ll take my life too.  I need you to make me a free man’s shoes.”
The cobbler shook his head.  “I would give you the shoes off my feet if I thought they would help, but you still don’t understand.  You would only feel like a free man.  The shoes would not free you.”
“Then there’s no hope?”
“My shoes can’t change your sentence, my lord.”
 The lord sat in silence for a while, and the cobbler was good enough to sit with him.  He thought while he sat, and thought and thought until he understood he had no way out.  He had dug himself into this dungeon and the cobbler’s hammer couldn’t get him out.
“I need one last pair of shoes,” Duntuss said.  “But I’m afraid I can’t pay you for them.  I need the shoes of a brave man.”
The cobbler nodded and left the dungeon, and former Lord Duntuss was alone once more.  He didn’t sob or sulk, for his encroaching death hadn’t hit his heart yet, but he expected it would soon, and that expectation worried him.  Not once did he sleep the entire night, and when the guards dragged him from his cell at the break of done, he looked to have aged ten years.  They marched him up from the dungeon in chains and out of the castle in iron boots, to better pull his body when the rope tightened around his neck.
“I can’t die yet,” he said.  “I’m expecting a new pair of shoes.”
The guards were unsympathetic.  They marched him up the steps to the royal gallows, where a thief and a murderer were also to be hanged today.  Duntuss scanned the crowd, but did not see the cobbler anywhere.  He hoped to see the old man at the edge of the crowd, approaching from the outskirts of the castle’s front, but then the world went black and a blindfold was placed over his eyes, for his comfort, they said, so he wouldn’t know when the executioner would drop the platform.
“Cobbler?” Duntuss cried.  “Don’t let me die a coward.  Please.”
It was then he felt someone fidgeting at his feet and he feared the platform was about to drop.  “Lord, I’m here,” the cobbler’s voice said.  “And I’ve brought you two shoes as you asked, free of charge.”
Duntuss’s heart settled the moment the old man slipped the shoes onto his feet.  They felt worn and comfortable, not exactly the feel he expected from the shoes a brave soldier or explorer.  More like the softened insides of slippers that a nobleman might wear when he was settling down at the end of the day.  But he trusted the cobbler, and even if he didn’t, he had little in what shoes to accept.  Besides, soft inside or not, he did feel brave.  He could face his end, even if he couldn’t see it, and was relieved that the cobbler had come to his aid, even without a reward to grant.  “Thank you,” Duntuss said.  Then his final moment came in a swift snap and the former lord was alive no more.
When the crowd had dispersed, leaving the hanged men to feed the crows, the cobbler returned and removed the shoes from Duntuss’s feet.  He took them back to his home and placed them on a shelf, stolen from the lord’s own mansion, where they sat for a year.
By then, the new king was settled rightly in his seat and had a mind to wage a war, not of words or hearts, but with swords and shields against other kingdoms, for he was not as good as the old king.  On the night before the soldiers were set to march, a boy of a man, his sword unblooded, appeared at the cobbler’s doorway.
“I’m off to war tomorrow,” the young soldier said.  “I was hoping you might spare the shoes of a great warrior for me to march in, so that I can fight well and live.”
“My shoes may make you feel like a great warrior, but they will not make you one,” the cobbler said.  “Here is something better.”  He presented the soldier with the shoes of the late Lord Duntuss.  “Here are the shoes of a brave man.”
“But they won’t make me a brave man, will they?” the soldier asked.  “They’ll only make me feel brave.”
The old cobbler smiled.  “My little war-making fool, you’ll see soon enough.  It’s practically the same.”