Thursday, 8 January 2015

I got second prize for this in a competition in Second Life - the theme was Winter.

Winter Tale

They sent the child out to fetch some wood, to keep their tiny fire stuttering on through the raw, bleak glimpse of daylight that was all they got on this shortest day of the year.
She was only a child and they sent her out, wrapped in whatever she could find to keep the wind from her.  She crackled through the undergrowth, looking for anything that would burn, her reddened fingers clutching and tugging at twigs and branches, snot running freely over chapped lips. She wore rags wrapped round her feet, then stuffed into over-sized clogs that had already been passed down through six older children before her.
The wind whistled, and a small, private Being watched her carefully from the hollow oak-apple where it had taken up residence.
There was man-scent on the air, and dog scent. They set traps and weren’t fussy what they caught in them … a deer, a hare….. a child.
The Being watched and did nothing. It wasn’t exactly thinking – its kind didn’t do thinking… but it was   …. considering, noticing.
Humans were none of its concern.
The sap was low in the trees, the bracken and ferns had gathered themselves into their roots, the filaments of fungus spread underground, connecting all the tree-roots, the messengers of the woodland – all that was as it should be. 
A small scream and the scent of blood indicated a kill by the stoat that had passed by just before - weaving and sniffing through the dried brambles. 
What would a little more blood and screaming matter to one such as the Fae Being who watched all?

But no, children were half-fae - wild little things that belonged in the woodlands and meadows before they were tamed and blinded by adult cares.  The creature stirred in its nest, sensing the darkness in the trappers’ minds, knowing from long since the deeds of human kind against their own. That would not be a clean blood-letting, vibrant with the flame of life passing from one to another. This would be twisting the life-force and darkening it in a way that was not meant to be.
The stoat trotted by below, its jaws clamped around a rabbit bigger than itself. The warm blood scent drifted up, igniting an answering fire in the Fae’s heart.  The human child had stopped moving as soon as she’d heard the rabbit scream, and now she watched the valiant little killer and his prey. The child blended perfectly with the scrubby growth, in the dim light with her ragged layers of indeterminate-coloured garments.
Wiping her nose on her sleeve, the child stepped right up to the tree where the fae nested.  Glancing around her, she took something from within her shawl.  She struggled to disentangle it with her one free hand, chilblained fingers carefully un-weaving whatever-it-was from the woollen threads.  Then she stood and looked at the object – a small figure made of twigs that had been tied together to make a body, head, arms and legs.
The Fae-creature stood and craned down to look – interested.
It could see the child’s heart - the little blaze of light that even humans carried within - suddenly grow big and bright as a flood of feeling welled through her.  The Fae had never seen such brightness in a human - even in a child. It watched as the child placed her little offering in a hollow of the tree, then leaned in and hugged the tree, laying herself against the ridged and scented bark, her left hand still clutching her bundle of firewood awkwardly.  Did the Fae see a quick kiss on the tree before the child levered herself back upright?
Her bundle had fallen apart and half-dropped on the forest floor, so she put it all down and worked busily scraping the sticks together into a tighter, more ordered collection. She straightened up, pulled her shawl tighter about her and picked up the bundle.  She sighed, eyes travelling back to the doll she’d left, and clumped off in her clumsy footwear.

There was a shifting in the air higher in the tree and a shadow seemed to flit over the child.  She stopped and looked back at the tree, hair prickling on her neck – but all was still.  She heard a branch fall from a tree a little way ahead.  It just cracked, loudly in the damp air, and thudded to the ground with a loud swishing of branches and dead leaves clinging still to their boughs.  She went towards it - there would be good firewood on that.
When she got there she found a dead log hanging from a noose suspended from a branch that still bobbed and shook where it had sprung up.  Turning, the child ran back and hid behind another tree – looking out and around fearfully for the hunter who had placed the snare. It wasn’t one of her father’s or brothers’ – that she was sure of.  They were all weak of the ague and had not been strong enough to hunt for days. 
She waited, heart beating, but no-one came.  All was still.  She crept back – her eyes searching the forest floor now, wary.  But there wouldn’t be another one so close.  She examined the rope, in the dim light – not one she’d seen before.  Strangers! In their woods! But she could do nothing with this big log.  She’d return with a brother and an axe.  They’d warm the bothy with this and maybe the baby would get better from the sickness.
Half a mile away two men crouched over a metal trap, easing it open and setting the catch. They had this one metal one they’d brought with them and were setting it where they saw an animal path. Their hound startled up, woofing a brief warning. A gleaming shape bounded across the glade. 
“Did you see it? A hind!”
They stood, frozen a moment, and again they saw it, almost gleaming in a last ray of sunlight.  It paused, seeming to look back at them, then trotted away. Seizing their bows the two men and their dog began to run after it – heading further into the woods as the daylight snuffed out. 
They didn’t know these woods and the land dropped away suddenly into an unexpected gully just where they were heading.
Now the woods were utterly silent, settling into a murky twilight.
Snow began to fall.
A stone detached itself from a bank and landed on metal. A ratcheting snap broke the silence for a brief second.

The snow continued to fall.  

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