The girl ran across the field. She ran full tilt, her cloak flapping in the near-gale and sometimes trying to tangle itself around her legs. Heedless of her swirling clothing, the girl continued to sprint over the stubble and patches of old, thin, crunchy snow. She ran straight, toward the bordering woods.
By the field was a small, tired house. The girl glanced at it briefly, but immediately sped up again, resuming a pace that she could not hope to maintain for very long. The house was winter-gray and lonely, shuttered of course and motionless. On its behalf, perhaps, the wind haled at the girl, urging her to get to cover there. But she would have none of it and sped on.
The house was not empty. Behind a shutter, a man peered out at the field — his field — and the running girl. Still as a spider, he watched her trace her wild, fluttering line across his land. Only his lips moved. Gently, he whispered imprecations against her. Softly, he cursed her. Not for anything personal, anything specific to the girl’s history or beliefs, did the man wish her ill. Rather, he spewed out zephyrs of hatred simply because she’d chosen to exist and to trace the line of her life — leave her footprints — on his old snow. She’d wandered too close to Tygalt and though she and he didn’t even know one another’s names, her simple trespass that afternoon was more than enough transgression for him.
Tygalt was crazy now. He’d always been taciturn, a farmer for whom silent communion with his oxen and his fields could make for a full and satisfying day. His wife, Charia, had loved him while she lived, in spite of his quiet. She had given him three sons, though she’d died bearing the last one. The infant had died also, leaving Tygalt two young men to bring up. He’d done as best he could, training more by example than with words. But the boys had grown up and left him. The elder had fought him and finally left one day; the younger had fought in the war and died. Tygalt had heard from neither one in a long while and the silence eventually became more than even he found likable.
He talked to his oxen, but they were even more indifferent to his remarks than he’d been to Charia’s while she was alive. He talked to the dog, Gally, who’d stayed behind when Tonily went off to the war. Gally tried to look interested, but he was always preoccupied with wondering when Tonily would get back. And Gally was getting on in years, inclined to lie quietly by the fireplace whether or not there was a fire burning. Tygalt was left with himself to talk to, when he needed to talk at all. Himself and the stubble in his fields.
Still muttering, he turned from his shuttered window as the running girl disappeared into the trees. Grumbling, he went over to the fireplace, assembled some wood, scraped a flint, and eventually persuaded a small flame to start up. The Night of Souls was coming on; one was supposed to have a fire going. A steady stream of invective and complaint dribbled past his lips as he coaxed up the smoke into flame. His undifferentiated malice was strong enough that Gally shifted himself slightly further away from both Tygalt and his fire.
Watching the fire build up and consume the wood, Tygalt continued his speech. The words, the phrases, the sentences, the whole train of his argument were all quite insane, if parsed for reason. But his meaning was quite clear: Every sourness, every disappointment in all of Tygalt’s life he chose to blame on the girl whom he had seen but once, running across his land at the end of winter. It was all her fault, Tygalt declaimed again and again, and she ought to be brought to account for it.
This he told his little fire over and over, for bell after bell. The girl, whoever she was, somehow was behind all the harm and failure Tygalt had suffered. This crazy argument he poured onto his fire like oil and the weird anger and twisted rage went up his chimney with the smoke. Both swirled up through the sky, whipped by their originator and by the growing gale outside. And it was the Night of Souls; the mix was very attractive to some of those who were out and abroad.
The sun was settling into the hills as Sister Hanala gasped into the close and staggered up to the door of Rockway House. She collapsed against it, but it had already been secured for the night. “Cephas’ boot,” she wheezed, and then hammered on the door.
“Who’s there?” someone called, but immediately corrected himself:
“Nor for all of Magnus’ gold,
Nor for gems from Fretheod old,
Nor for kind words, clever or bold,
May you enter this safe hold.”
“Now go away!”
“Cephas’s other boot!” Hanala wheezed to herself. She rapped a tattoo on the door, a long and two shorts. She repeated that pattern three times, then paused.
“Oh. That you, Hanala?” the man inside asked. She rapped the pattern one more time. “If it’s you, you’re late.”
“I know that,” Hanala panted, well aware that her weak voice couldn’t be heard through the thick door even when she wasn’t recovering her breath in a rising windstorm.
Nothing more happened for a mene. Hanala leaned against the door, staring at the setting sun and hoping that Brother Martren — it’d sounded like Brother Martren — had merely gone to find a burly brother to stand with him, just in case, while he opened the door. Finally, she heard returning footsteps.
“If you’re not Sister Hanala,” the voice that was probably Brother Martren threatened, “you’d better run away now. Because we’re only going to let Sister Hanala in. Anyone else will get thrashed.” Then Hanala heard the bar sliding aside and the door finally opened. She darted in, nearly colliding with the lantern that Brother Anthony was holding.
“Watch it!” he exclaimed. He lifted the lantern up higher and leaned out of her way while Hanala tried to veer aside. She wound up stumbling and sliding onto the floor. “Look out!” Brother Anthony added unhelpfully. Hanala finished up sprawled on her stomach and mostly covered by her billowing cloak.
“Best close the door now, Martren,” Anthony suggested. “Everyone else is already safely in. In reasonable time.” He crouched beside Hanala, who hadn’t felt like trying to move again right away. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Was something chasing you? What did it look like?”
“No,” Sister Hanala breathed.
“No?” Brother Anthony repeated. He looked up at Martren, who had put aside the cudgel he’d held ready and was securing the door again.
“Which question is that an answer to?” Brother Martren asked. “And where’s the green wood you were supposed to bring back a supply of?”
“Dropped it,” Hanala whispered.
“Dropped it, did you?” Martren echoed. “Don’t you realize the importance of having freshly cut wood on our fire tonight?”
“Yes,” Sister Hanala whispered. She got to her feet. “Sorry.”
“You weren’t the only one cutting the wood,” Brother Anthony told her. “The others brought back a decent amount and we’re all gathered in the common room. Of course, since that’s where the fire will be. Come along.” He led the way, still talking. “We’ll be all right. What’s really important was getting yourself back here in time.”
“Yes, of course,” Brother Martren agreed gracelessly. “That’s important, too. But what happened to you? Did you lose track of the sun?”
“The wind,” Hanala said softly. “It blew me the wrong way.”
“Yes,” Brother Anthony agreed. “The wind has come up quite strong. I expect we’ll have it howling around the house all night, making a dreadful racket and giving us excellent accompaniment to the stories we’ll all be telling. You have one ready, don’t you?”
Hanala shrugged, but Brother Martren was dissatisfied.
“You’re saying that the wind made you so late that you nearly got yourself locked outside on the Night of Souls?” he asked doubtfully. “And the wind made you drop your collection of green wood?”
“I left the wood because I couldn’t run and carry it,” Hanala explained softly. “I was — ”
“Here we are, here we are!” Brother Anthony broke in, advancing into the common room. “All present and accounted for. We’re all here. The food’s prepared. The wood’s prepared. The stories are ready and the storytellers are all here. Let the Night of Souls commence — Sister Telea, would you grace us with a warding prayer to Cephas Stevene?”
Tygalt’s fire burned no green wood at all. It was no different from any other fire he burned when he wanted to warm himself and Gally. It was no different, that is, except that he didn’t always choose to mutter doom and destruction upon a stranger while his fire blazed. That was new, but the wood was all old and dried; it burned quite nicely. And the smoke swirled up and out of his old, filthy chimney. It swirled up into the howling wind and it didn’t disperse.
The running girl had left a clear trail from Tygalt’s farm to Rockway House. Composed partly of panting and partly of fear, it lingered long enough for the assemblage of Tygalt’s smoky fury to find and follow after it. Wind gusted through the woods, shaking the leafless branches, while the vague form that smelled somewhat of old woodfires and somewhat of old hurts shambled toward Rockway House.
Brother Anthony was the master of the entertainment, of course. He decided the sequence of storytellers, doing his best to keep the thing interesting in spite of the varied talents of the other residents. Brother Gorim, always told the same story and always exactly the same way. His tale was good, admittedly. But it was also repeated word for word year after year. Brother Gorim, who was quite deaf now, would boom his short tale out at a volume that kept spookiness far at bay. Brother Anthony usually called upon him fairly early, in deference to people who needed to nap later in the evening.
Brother Martren was another storyteller who tried conscientiously, but could hardly be considered a success. His attempts to impart an air of mystery to his compositions usually resulted in a low, dull monotone that always put at least a few members of his audience to sleep. And, in all honesty, the material was fairly pedestrian, Anthony thought. Always, it seemed, Martren told of solitary men in the Port of Dargon who’d committed rather mundane crimes years earlier, crimes that involved irritating recitals of money and numbers. And now, finally, these old criminals were being brought to justice by ghosts or whatnot that took a terribly long amount of time to do it. Brother Anthony sighed: Brother Martren should have had more experience with pirate ships in his youth. But Martren did try, and Brother Anthony programmed him later in the evening — again in deference to people who needed to nap.
Sister Anne was amazing. Year after year, she came up with an excellent tale that was really fascinating in spite of the fact that she always gave a prominent place in the story to mushrooms. Since she was one of the nappers, Brother Anthony called on her early.
Brother Thibald was a problem. He’d started a sea story his first year at the House, but it had trailed off — in tears, Brother Anthony recalled. Brother Thibald had never finished it and had refused to try again ever since. Instead, he would sit quietly in one corner the whole night, staring at the fire and hardly reacting at all as the others told their tales. Brother Anthony sighed and removed him from his calculations.
Brothers Anselm and Muskrat were both hardworking and reasonably successful storytellers, in Brother Anthony’s generous opinion. Generally, one or the other of them was called upon to begin the evening, with the other usually summoned to salvage the situation after Rupert, the senior member had gotten himself bogged down again in misremembered details of whatever long-forgotten tale he attempted to recite. Rupert was always apologetic, but recovering from one of his hashes was sometimes painful.
Anthony reserved the final spot for his own creation. He considered himself more skilled than anyone else in the House at stretching or compressing his material so that it would conclude just at dawn. Thus, if imagination failed some other residents in performance, he could always add a third castle or supplemental quest to his material and the evening would remain full. Alternatively, if the muse tapped everyone else with a bounty of inspiration, Anthony could also be magnanimous in appreciation and brief in his own contribution. Brother Anthony considered himself very flexible.
As the yams were being spitted and scorched on the fire and the keg of Soulsbeer was spiked, then, he invited Brother Muskrat to begin the sharing of stories.
Wind swirled old, dead leaves and small branches. Clouds scudded overhead and only bits of starlight illuminated the figure that moved across the close toward the door of Rockway House. But the door was closed securely; the figure pressed against it but could not get in. Curious to know what was going on within, eager to find a particular resident within, it began to wander around the house.
The terror had been as delicious as usual. Sister Hanala had listened with fear and trembling and happy pleasure as other residents had offered accounts of the ghosts and creatures and creepers that played out their fates in dark places. She’d shivered and gasped and realized that the good thing about spending the whole night gathered together by the fire was that you weren’t expected to retire to solitary nightmares after hearing some of these tales. Having heard the several of them, and having prepared one of her own earlier in the month, Hanala also wanted to offer a story. It was the first time she’d volunteered to tell a tale, so Anthony was surprised. She went to the telling chair close to the fire, seated herself and then paused to set the story in her own mind.
“Once, there was a sorceress named Ariel,” she began.
“Personal history, we’re going to get?” someone close by muttered. But he was drowned out by Brothers Rupert, Martren, and Gorim who all complained that they couldn’t hear.
“Her voice is quite soft,” Sister Anne admitted. She’d roused herself from a nap to have a listen. “And that wind outside doesn’t help matters any. Hanala, can’t you speak up any more?”
“I’m already shouting,” Hanala replied.
“Call that shouting?” Brother Anselm declared loudly. “I’ll show you shouting!”
“You don’t have to bellow,” Rupert told him acidly. “I’m not as deaf as all that.”
“All right, everyone,” Anthony interrupted, calling the assemblage back to order. “Hanala’s doing the best she can, so everyone’ll just have to gather in close and listen up as best they can. I don’t suppose anyone here can do anything about the wind?” he added facetiously.
“Well …” Hanala thought about saying more, and suggesting that she was fairly sure that she’d had *some* effect on the wind earlier in the day. But the experiment then hadn’t gone that well and she did have a story to tell. She waited for people to rearrange themselves and then tried again.
The visitor from Tygalt’s Farm had been drifting irritatedly around outside the house. Even with the noise of the rising gale, the voices of the gathered residents were audible. The outbreaks of cheering and occasional laughter were a painful magnet to the miserable outsider. The long periods of time when a single voice was telling a tale and couldn’t quite be heard through the walls of the house also tantalized the visitor. The creature pressed against an unyielding wall — and then heard Anthony issue the invitation to gather in close. At the same time, the green wood on the fire, which Brother Muskrat had been managing before he nodded off, ran out. Pleased to have an invitation and the means to accept it, the visitor flowed up the side of Rockway House and down the chimney. From the fireplace, the visitor eased discreetly into a corner while Hanala continued to tell a story about Ariel the sorceress and the whispering wind.
The story, for those who were able to hear it, was well told. If it featured a sometime resident of the House named Ariel who happened to be off traveling at present, it was still entertaining even if it probably hadn’t *actually* happened to her. After the custom of the house, thanks were voiced by the other residents when Hanala finished and yielded the telling chair. Brother Anthony got up from his place and eased his way forward.
“Is there anyone else who’d like to tell us a story?” he asked, obviously expecting to get no affirmative answer.
In his dim corner, Brother Thibald stirred. He wasn’t alone back there, he realized, and glanced over at the figure who was with him. He frowned, not recognizing who it was. “Hey, um.” Thibald paused, feeling awkward. He didn’t know of any guests who were staying at the House at the moment and was embarassed not to recognize a fellow resident. Casting about for something to say, he asked “Do you want to tell a story?”
“Me?” the other rasped.
“Sure,” Brother Thibald assured him. “If you haven’t already told your story and you want to, then now’s the time to do it. Otherwise, Brother Anthony there’s going to fill up every mene between now and dawn. I mean, he’s good and all, but speak now or you’ll have to hold your peace for another whole year.”
“Can’t do that,” the figure admitted. More loudly, his still-rough voice declared, “I have a story to tell.”
“Huh?” Brother Anthony was just getting comfortable in his chair. “Who?”
“Me.” The figure came forward into the firelight. “Your neighbor.”
A shudder flowed across the room. The couple of residents who knew what their reclusive neighbor looked like recognized a resemblance between this person and that farmer. “Is that Tygalt?” Hanala heard one brother mutter to another. But no other neighbors had come to visit Rockway House this night. All had their own set customs and habits for keeping the wandering evils at bay. How then had Tygalt come to be present with them and how had he managed to go unnoticed all night?
Brother Anthony was vexed, of course. His time had started out on the shortish side because of several good, though longish tales. Then, Sister Hanala’s story had taken him by surprise and chopped even further into his final time. And now, there was this story. He tried to size up Farmer Tygalt and guess whether the tale would be brief or rambling. He guessed wrong.
“All right,” Brother Anthony offered. “Have at the chair.”
The dark figure of farmer Tygalt flowed into the center of the group, gathered itself into the telling chair, and began to speak: “My story,” he said, “is about a man who had troubles and burdens heaped upon him. While he grew up, always was he expected to behave perfectly and nobly, ministering without fail to the needs of his parents and of his lord. When his father twisted his knee, it was this boy who was required to help him stand. When his mother fell sick, it was this boy who was summoned to mop her fevered brow. When his lord needed to defend the area from a fierce wolfpack, it was this boy who was required to muck out the lord’s stables while the lord’s men were out on the hunt.
“When the boy grew older and the time came for him to take a wife, his burden only increased. The wife he took only added to the demands on this man, expecting him nightly to attend to her and keep off from her frail shoulders the weight of the world’s indifferent immensity. Always, she seemed to be hacking away the sinews of this man’s soul …”
The story continued and, listening to it, Sister Hanala frowned. It was a strange story and rather a longwinded one. And the attitude seemed strangest of all, for the claim that the man it was about had suffered great burdens and demands hardly seemed to match the examples this Tygalt gave. What, Hanala wondered, was so burdensome about helping one’s father after an injury? Wasn’t it instead a blessing simply to have a father at all? And a wife who needed attention, where was the burden in that? Surely, it wasn’t these other people who were creating burdens, but the man himself who chose to see everything in life as wearisome.
And then Hanala noticed that the story was changing. She understood it still, little as she cared for its viewpoint, but the syllables now failed to make sense. The words cleaved the air harshly and seemed to her to hurt her ears physically. And she couldn’t understand them one by one any more. But she still knew what the story meant. Incident was being piled on incident and, through it all, this man was seeing everything that happened to him as a travail to be complained of. It was more and more of the same and the same and she wished it would stop.
Hanala glanced around the room. Everyone sat still while the furious tale piled up. No-one else moved, not even an uncomfortable fidgeting. Finally, she could stand it no longer. When the telling Tygalt paused, apparently to take a breath, she asked, “But whose fault is all this man’s misery?”
Tygalt stopped. He looked straight at her. After letting the gale-punctured silence thicken, he asked, “What did you say?”
“I asked,” Hanala yelled, as loudly as she could. “Whose fault is all this man’s misery?” she continued in a more customary whisper.
“Whose fault?” Tygalt leaned back in his chair. He seemed to relax some, but also seemed to look less like a neighborly farmer. “Whose fault would *you* say it was?” he inquired.
“It seems to me that it’s his own fault,” Hanala said quietly.
“I’m not surprised,” Tygalt said smugly. “Of course, you *would* try to put the blame on him.”
“*I* would?” Hanala cried out. “What do you mean, I would? Anyone would. The man thought everything was a burden and it wasn’t. Sometimes you do really get burdened with troubles, but the examples you kept giving — ”
“They’re all your fault, you know.”
“The man’s travails.” Tygalt rested his arms on the arms of the chair. “They’re all your fault.”
“Mine?” She gaped at him. “How?”
“You know how. And he knows also.” Tygalt grinned coldly. “He saw you; he knows all about it.”
“He saw me? When?” Hanala was on her feet, looking around the room, trying to find some other listener who was as puzzled by Tygalt’s claim as she was. But everyone else was still and seemed only dimly lit by the fire. “What did he see?” Hanala demanded of Tygalt. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about how you destroyed that man’s life.”
“But what did I do? I didn’t do anything!”
“Don’t give me that. He *knows* the truth.”
“But that’s not the truth. He’s wrong. You’re wrong — ”
Tygalt barked a short, mirthless laugh. “You’re wasting your breath, denying it,” he said.
“But — ” Hanala clenched her fists in frustration, staring at the horrible man who accused her so implacably and crazily of having done — Actually, she wasn’t sure exactly what he was accusing her of having done. “All right,” she said, with forced calm. “What is it, exactly that I’m supposed to have done?”
“You know what you did.”
“No I don’t!” Hanala screamed, though the howling outside was still about as loud. “What’s your proof?!”
“Proof?” His elbows still on the arms of the chair, Tygalt clasped his hands in front of him and stared at Hanala. “You want proof? You ask me to tell you of evidence?”
He ignored her. “I give you truth and you ask for substantiation! How pathetic you are, you eristic little witch.” He stood up.
“But your so-called truth is wrong –” Hanala cut off that argument. It was doing her no good. “That story you were telling, about the man who knows the truth, that’s your story, isn’t it?”
“Of course it’s my story. I’m telling it.”
“No, I mean it’s your own story, isn’t it?”
Tygalt shrugged. “You’d know that already,” he said. “You’d know because it’s all your fault.”
“Yes, yes. So you’ve already said,” Hanala said quickly. Her mind raced, trying to make sense of what was happening. But also, she was hoping that this was perhaps something like some of those peculiar debates she’d gotten into with Martren. She started talking just to try to keep the strange storyteller conversing. “And *you* know the truth about the truth,” she suggested. “But whether or not it’s all my fault, what are you going to do about it?”
“Consume you,” Tygalt replied. His voice was calm, as if discussing a plan for copying a three-volume manuscript. “I shall swallow you up in choking flames of avenging justice.”
“Well, that’s clear enough,” Hanala muttered, “except for the fact that where there’re choking flames there likely will be smoke –” She stared at Tygalt, wondering about the possibilities in smoke. There was a fair amount in the room, but that was to be expected. “You know, I really do doubt that we truly invited you to come join our gathering –”
“It’s too late to regret your lack of social graces,” Tygalt warned.
“That I’d call a tiger mewling over the mirror’s teeth.”
“Very well, then.” Tygalt took a step toward the girl. “Prepare to –”
“And now, you’re becoming tiresome. Besides,” Hanala continued quickly, “I do not think you’d be advised to try to burn me.”
“And why not?”
Hanala talked fast: “You want the truth? I’ll assume you do. Let’s suppose that the truth is so and I am responsible for everything that has happened to you. In that case, if you do burn me and I’m gone, what’ll become of you? You’ll be nothing. With me, the source of all the stuff in your life, absent, you’ll be left in a void. Emptiness.” She tsked. “It won’t be at all pleasant.”
“It won’t stay empty,” Tygalt replied, but he sounded uncertain. “I can fill my life — ”
“With what?” Hanala demanded. “Everything in your life I did to you. That’s your truth. It’s all me. Take me away, consume me with your righteous flame and what have you got left but solitary you?”
“Solitary me’s not that bad.” Tygalt sounded petulant.
“You don’t believe that,” Hanala declared, hoping it was so.
“Yes I do.” Tygalt seemed to waver.
“Nope. You wouldn’t be here if you did.”
Tygalt’s shape quivered around the edges, then steadied again. “No,” he decided. “That isn’t how it is.”
“But you said — ”
“The truth is that only *almost* everything that happened to me is your fault,” Tygalt declared. “So consuming you with sacred flame won’t isolate me completely. In fact, it’ll heal me. I’ll get well! I’ll find happiness! If I can just get rid of –”
“But you know that’s not the truth,” Hanala stormed. “You know what the truth is: Everything that comes to you comes to you from me! That’s the axiom of your existence. Unrecantable. You know that, whether or not you try to deny it now.”
“But — ”
“I give you light — “With a quick prayer to the Stevene for comfort, she snapped her fingers, casting a simple spell. A glow sprang up from her hand. She smiled and continued. “And I can take it away.” She shook her hand, the light died. All light died. That was more than she’d expected, but she couldn’t let herself worry about that then. In the darkness she continued: “The very air that you breathe comes from me,” she claimed.
“No! That’s –”
She ignored him. She had him adrift now, and not only that but her small magicks were working and she didn’t want to lose the thrill. “I give it to you, but I can take it away — or I can give you too much — ” With another prayer to the Stevene for support, she hazarded a repetition of the experiment in the afternoon that had brought on that gale. She summoned up serenity from the love of her god — and held onto it. She summoned up confidence from Tygalt’s insane claim that everything was her fault — and held onto it. And she summoned skill from the fact that her little light magics had just worked — and held onto that also. Then she pressed together the serenity, the confidence and the skill — and the wanting. A hurricane broke out.
The wind caught her up with a shriek — she had no idea whose. There might also have been another from Tygalt. She never knew. She didn’t need to know much except that her god did love her and that there was more, much more, that she was connected to than Tygalt’s little everything. And that it was a true and good thing that Tygalt’s private universe was such a desolate place. She collided with nothing as the hurricane threw and spun her across it. And, dizzyingly, it spun round her and shrank from something very small into absolutely nothing at all.
Hanala heard a clattering of pots and pans, the noise that traditionally greeted the dawn after a Night of Souls. Supposedly, it warned the spirits who couldn’t recognize the significance of a brightening eastern sky that it was time to push along back to their hideaways for another full year. It also served to rouse those who couldn’t last the vigil so that they could at least join in at the celebratory morning meal. Hanala groaned and opened her eyes.
“Where’s Tygalt?” she asked, but no-one could hear her. Brothers and Sisters, armed with their weapons of clamor, were opening windows or making for the doors in order to drive off the evil things more quickly.
Hanala got to her feet, expecting to feel bruised and battered after the hurricane’s mistreatment. But her body felt fine. Only her mind felt abused. Behind all the clanging and banging, she thought she heard a dog whine. The unhappy sound wasn’t reproachful, though, simply in need of help.
Hanala nodded and, following several brethren, trotted outside into the crisp, calm, brightening air. Squinting her eyes at the rising sun, she smiled and continued running toward the whining that she wondered if she only could hear. It felt good to be alive and blameless.