DargonZine 12, Issue 3

Once Upon a Winter’s Night

Janis 18, 1017


Snowflakes, big as a baby’s fist, fell thick and steady past the window. Illuminated by the lamp that stood on the sill, they seemed to Carl Sandmond akin to feathers, as though someone were emptying pillow after pillow out of an upstairs window. They had been falling like that all day, blanketing the street outside so that even the sound of a passing cart was muffled.

 

Carl let out a bored sigh. He hadn’t had a customer since midday. There was no ship in the harbour — hadn’t been for a sennight thanks to the storms that had plagued the coast. Even without the sailors, there would normally have been his regulars and passing carters, but as the snow had deepened the customers had become fewer and fewer, until even the hardiest had decided that they’d had enough. He looked around at the empty inn and sighed again. He’d given the barmaids the rest of the day off — with no customers for them to serve, their being there was pointless — then he’d cleaned the tables and the chairs and benches, swept the floor and put down fresh sawdust. He’d been so bored that he’d even scrubbed the privvy out back, a job he normally left to his wife.

 

Even his wife had deserted him, he felt, having gone to visit their daughter and her husband in Barel a few days earlier. The birth of their first child was imminent, so Aileen probably wouldn’t be back for at least another sennight. Carl groaned, realising that it might be even longer if this weather kept up. He picked up a mug and crossed the room to fill it with spiced wine from a large, blackened pot that hung over the fire. Another pot, full of stew, hung beside it. It seemed that the preparation of both would likely prove to have been a waste of his time. He sat down at the nearest table and let out another sigh. It was going to be a long night.

 

He was beginning to snooze, resting his head on his forearms, when the door opened, startling him so that he nearly upset the half-full mug of wine. He hurried to take the tall stranger’s coat, collecting his senses and offering a cheery greeting on the way. He shook the cloak to rid it of its crusting of snow, then hung it near the fire as the man stamped snow from his boots. Carl watched the stranger as he settled at the same table from which the innkeeper had himself been startled moments earlier. He hadn’t seen him in Dargon before, but that was the case with a great many of his customers. The man was tall and thin and Carl thought that he must be somewhere around his own age. The almost-black hair was greying and the face was heavily lined, although there was a youthful intensity to the brown eyes that watched Carl’s approach. The stranger didn’t look too well off: his clothes were patche d and faded and his boots looked as though they would fall apart at any time. Then again, no one travelled in their finest clothes, not in this weather, so his shabbiness didn’t necessarily mean that he was poor.

 

“A mug of spiced wine, sir? A bowl of hot stew to warm your belly?” Carl offered cheerfully, picking up his own mug and wiping the table-top with the corner of his apron.

 

“The wine sounds inviting,” the man nodded with a tired smile, “but my purse won’t stretch to the stew, not unless you’d trade a bowl for a story.”

 

Carl frowned. So the stranger *was* poor. Carl didn’t usually trade anything for stories — he heard enough for free usually, especially from the sailors. He sometimes traded for meat, or other commodities and he’d once accepted a bolt of fine cloth in return for a night’s lodging, but never stories. Still, the pot of stew would go to waste if the weather didn’t pick up over the next day or two, so he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to give a bowl away. And he *was* bored.

 

“Well,” he said, “I don’t usually, but since it’s so cold out, and you look hungry, I think I can break my own rule for once. Just as long as you don’t tell anyone … If word got around that I gave food away for stories, I’d have every bard and talespinner from here to Magnus trying their luck.”

 

The stranger laughed, a deep, melodious sound, and held out a large, weathered hand to Carl.

 

“You have my word innkeeper,” he said with a broad smile. “No one will hear of your generosity from Bran Farnath’s lips.”

 

“That’ll do for me,” Carl grinned back as he shook Bran’s hand, “and the name’s Carl, Carl Sandmond.”

 

As he ladled a generous portion of stew into a bowl, the door opened again, and he glanced up to see a slight figure enter.

 

“Be with you in a moment,” he called as he tore a hunk of bread from one of the loaves in a basket that stood next to the hearth. He hurried over to Bran and placed the bowl and the bread before him, along with a wooden spoon that he took from the pocket of his apron.

 

“Get that down you,” he said briskly, “and I’ll be back with the wine in a few menes. I’ll hear that story of yours when you’ve eaten.”

 

Bran, who had started eating as soon as the bowl had been set before him, nodded as he chewed and Carl hurried off to see to the newcomer. It was a young woman, probably about nineteen or twenty years old: his daughter’s age. She was wrapped up in a heavy cloak, although she shook her head when he offered to take it from her.

 

“You’ll not feel the benefit when you go back outside if you keep it on in here,” he admonished with a friendly smile, but the woman shook her head again.

 

“I might take it off when I’ve warmed up a little,” she said with a shiver, as though to emphasise how cold she felt, “but not until I get the feeling back in my body.”

 

Carl shrugged and waited until she had knocked off most of the snow, before leading her towards the crackling log fire. She didn’t sit at the table with Bran, but instead perched on a bench close to the fire.

 

“Is this spiced wine?” she asked, leaning over the pot and peering in, sniffing the aroma.

 

“Finest in Dargon,” Carl nodded proudly as he filled a mug and placed it before Bran. “And this stew’s the tastiest you’ll find from here to Magnus.”

 

“Then I’ll have a mug of the wine and a bowl of the stew,” she said, pulling back the cowl of her cloak with her left hand to reveal short, curly brown hair and a face full of freckles.

 

Carl picked up another bowl and filled it with stew: another generous portion and more than he would usually give, but he reasoned to himself that there would be less to waste this way. He placed the bowl on the table next to the one at which Bran sat and gestured for the woman to take her place as he bent to tear another piece of bread from the loaf. He felt in his pocket for another spoon, then filled another mug with spiced wine and placed both before her.

 

His own mug of wine had gone cold, so he took a poker from the fire and placed inside the mug for a few moments to warm the liquid before taking a seat at Bran’s table, just as the other man was mopping up the last of his stew with the remains of the bread.

 

“So, friend,” he said after gulping a mouthful of wine, “How about this story?”

 

“Certainly,” Bran smiled, taking a swig from his own mug. “And a fine story it shall be, in return for a fine meal.”

 

Carl gave him a look of warning, gesturing towards the girl who was busily spooning stew into her mouth with her left hand. Bran grimaced apologetically as he fished in his pocket and brought out a pipe, which he lit from the flame of the candle that sat in the middle of the table.

 

 

“This is a true story,” he began, “as true as you and I are sitting here over this marvellous spiced wine. It was a cold night, so cold that the frost was glittering on the road in Nochturon’s light as I passed a small hamlet to the south of Shireton. There was no inn to be found and I was faced with the choice of continuing to Shireton or sleeping rough, neither of which appealed to me as I was exhausted from walking all day and the cold was freezing my blood. Well, there was a small house on the edge of the hamlet, with a good sized barn and I had the idea of asking the owners if I could shelter there. As it turned out, they were as kind and hospitable as your good self, and offered me a cot in the larger of their two rooms, as well as some food and a mug of ale.

 

“They were a pleasant couple, or so it seemed to me as I sat at their table and ate their food, although the woman seemed a little distant, staring into nothingness half the time. No, it was more like she was listening to something. I’d speak to her, out of courtesy, to tell her how grateful I was for them taking me in and it was as though she had to tear herself away from something to answer me. This went on for some time, and I could see that her husband was growing anxious about her as she slipped further and further away from us. Then, when she no longer seemed to hear anything I said, he stood up and announced that it was time for bed. I didn’t see anything wrong in that at the time, after all they were peasants and most likely had to be up with the sun. Mind you, I did think it a little strange that he had to pull her to her feet and more or less guide her through to the other room as though she was blind. I knew she wasn’t — she had managed to move around on her own earlier — but I was so tired th at I put it out of my mind as I settled down on the cot and let the flickering of the dying firelight lull me to sleep.

 

“I woke to find it still dark, except for Nochturon’s steady light shining through the window, but I had the sense that something wasn’t quite right. Then I heard it. I thought at first that they must be having an argument, the shouting was so loud, but after a few moments I realised that only the woman was shouting. She was carrying on something terrible, moaning and crying, even screaming at times and the man was making soothing noises, but nothing he said would quiet her. I tried to go back to sleep, thinking that whatever it was, it was none of my business, but her cries were so loud and pitiful that I couldn’t shut them out. Eventually, I decided to go and see if there was anything I could do to help.”

 

 

At that moment, movement caught Carl’s eye and he turned his attention away from Bran to see that the young woman had risen from her seat and approached their table.

 

“Do you mind if I join you?” she asked. “Only, I couldn’t help overhearing and the story is so interesting.”

 

“Please,” Bran gestured expansively, “I am only too happy to share my tale with a fellow traveller. Please join us.”

 

Carl smiled as the woman pulled back the chair, then she turned and picked up her mug of spiced wine from her table with her left hand and sat down, her cloak still wrapped tightly around her.

 

 

“Well,” Bran resumed his story, “I knocked on the door of the adjoining room, not wanting to barge in on something I shouldn’t, and the man called out that he would be out in a moment. I couldn’t help but look into the room when he opened the door and I caught my breath at the sight I beheld. The poor woman was tied to the bed! There were ropes around her wrists and ankles and she was struggling like a crazed animal and crying out for him to let her go. I must admit that the scene shook me and as the man came through the door, closing it behind him, I stepped back for fear of what he might do to me.

 

“He must have seen the horror in my eyes, because his own were full of sadness as he shook his head and placed a trembling hand on my shoulder.

 

“‘I’m sorry you had to see that, friend,’ he told me, ‘I suppose I had better explain.’

 

“He led me back into the other room and lit the lamp. While he busied himself lighting the fire again and placing a kettle of water over it, I studied him. He seemed an ordinary man in every respect. He was losing his hair, and had started to grow a little stout around the belly, a little like yourself, friend Carl. His face was a kindly one, if a little careworn and he seemed hardly the type who would tie his poor wife to the bed, for whatever reason. When everything was done he sat himself down at the table and gestured for me to do the same. I did, perplexed by the pain in his eyes as he faced me over the glow of the lamp.

 

“‘What you saw just then is not what you think,’ he said to me at last, the words leaving his mouth on a heavy, sorrowful breath. ‘My wife is a good woman, and means everything in the world to me. It breaks my heart to have to tie her down like that, but if I don’t, then who knows what harm will befall her.’

 

“‘Whatever do you mean?’ I asked him, dumbfounded.

 

“‘It all started twenty years ago this very night,’ he began, pain darkening his hazel eyes as he remembered. ‘Lileth, my wife, was in the throes of childbirth. Things were not going well for her and I was afraid that I would lose her. We had tried so long to have a family, but to no avail, and by now she was coming to the end of her childbearing years. Anyway, the midwife gave her some potion or other to ease the pain, and eventually she gave birth.’

 

“By the tears in his eyes I could tell that his story would end in tragedy, and I was not wrong. Tell me Carl, could I impose on your hospitality to ask for another mug of wine? My mouth is so dry with the telling of the story.”

 

 

Carl frowned. He had been lost in the story, wondering what terrible thing was going to come next. He was also dismayed that the teller of the tale wanted another mug of wine, for which he obviously wasn’t in a position to pay. Nevertheless, he took Bran’s mug with a forced smile and filled it, because he wanted to hear the rest of the story. While he was up he filled his own, and that of the young woman, so that there would be no more interruptions before the tale was finished. When she rummaged under her cloak and came up with a silver Round to pay for her food, drink and a night’s lodging, sincerity returned to his smile. At least one of his customers could pay their way.

 

 

“Now,” Bran mused, scratching his long, straight nose as Carl resumed his seat. “Where was I? Oh yes. Well, according to the man, the child was born and at the same moment his wife lost consciousness. He tried to rouse her, but in vain and he thought her lost to him until the midwife told him that his wife’s deep sleep was a result of the potion and that he should let her rest. It was then that he turned his attention to the child and saw that it was a pale, sickly-looking thing. Worst of all, its right arm was withered and useless. The midwife told him that it wouldn’t last more than a sennight and Faren, my host, was distraught. Here was their last chance to raise a child of their own and it was unlikely to live more than a few days. How could he watch his Lileth care for her child, knowing that soon she would have to bury it? How could he watch Lileth’s heart break like that?

 

“The midwife told him that what he should do was expose the child, that night before Lileth woke and tell her that it had been born dead, so that she would be spared the ordeal of caring for a child that would soon be lost to her. Faren was torn. Part of him wanted to ignore the midwife’s advice, after all, she might be wrong, the child might live and grow strong. Then he looked down at his child, at its frail, still body and its poor withered arm. It looked to him as though the effort of drawing in breath was something that it would be unable to sustain and it had not cried once. How could he stand by and watch it suffer? Without another thought he picked up the child and carried it out of the house, hardly able to see where he was going for the tears in his eyes.

 

“He carried the babe to the top of a nearby hill and laid it, naked, on the frost-covered earth. Then, before his resolve broke he hurried away, leaving it to the mercy of the elements, telling himself over and over again that he had done the right thing. But it was no use. He had hardly reached his door when he heard a sound that had him running back up the hill. That sound was a baby’s cry. His child had cried for the first time, a long, plaintive wail and he suddenly didn’t care whether it lived only a week or a lifetime. His child needed him. He ran faster than he had ever done before, up the hill, not even stopping to catch his breath when a pain in his side doubled him over. When he reached the top of the hill he was on the point of collapse, but it had all been in vain. His child was gone.”

 

 

“What do you mean *gone*?” the young woman interrupted.

 

Carl looked at her, jolted out of the story by her outcry. He could see that she had been moved by the story. She was clutching the folds of her cloak around her, and her eyes were bright as she bit her lower lip. It seemed odd to him for a stranger to be so affected by another’s story, no matter how sad, and he wondered if she knew the couple in question.

 

Then something else occurred to him. It was something he had been noticing ever since she had walked into the inn, something that until now had seemed unimportant. He had not seen her right hand. For everything, from eating to running her fingers through her short brown curls, she had used her left hand. Even now, as she questioned Bran, her right arm was hidden somewhere under that heavy cloak. Could she be the child from the story? Then he smiled to himself, shaking his head and grinning at his own foolishness. Of course she couldn’t be that child; it would not have survived.

 

 

“Gone,” Bran confirmed. “There was nothing to be seen of the child on the hilltop. Faren dropped to his knees on the spot where he had left the child only moments earlier and he wept. What had he done? He had thought he was doing what was right, giving the child a swift and painless escape from its suffering, and preventing the further suffering of his beloved Lileth. The keening of a wolf in the forest nearby confirmed his suspicions. He had damned his only child to be food for the wolves.

 

“He stayed there on that hilltop until the sun began to rise, then when all his tears were shed, he returned home to his wife. He told her the story that the midwife suggested, that the child had been born lifeless and that he had buried it as she slept. His wife — as he had known she would be — was inconsolable at first, but through time she came to accept the story, along with the fact that they were destined to be childless. They went on with their lives as normal, despite the sadness that they both felt whenever they saw families with children. Everything seemed fine, until a year to the day after the child’s birth.”

 

 

“What happened then?” It was Carl’s turn to interrupt. He couldn’t help himself. He had been listening to the story and watching the young woman from the corner of his eye, unable to quell the thought that she still hadn’t used her right hand.

 

 

“Well,” Bran replied, his expression slightly vexed at the interruption. “He woke in the night to find Lileth gone. It was cold; in fact the weather was much as it is tonight, with deep snow covering the land and a strong wind that stung his flesh through his clothing as he went out to search for her. She wasn’t difficult to find — all he had to do was follow the footprints in the fresh snow — and before long he found her, cold and still at the top of the hill: the very hill where a year earlier Faren had abandoned his only child.”

 

 

“Was she dead?” the young woman asked fearfully, and Carl noted that she was chewing the nails of her left hand, while her right was still nowhere to be seen.

 

 

“No, she wasn’t dead,” Bran continued. “She was asleep, with a smile on her face as serene and peaceful as a well-nursed babe. Faren tried to wake her, to ask what on Makdiar she was doing, but it was as though she was in thrall because he couldn’t rouse her. He tried everything, from shaking her and calling her name, even to gently slapping her face, but nothing would work. Eventually, fearful that she would die from the cold, he picked her up and carried her bodily back to their house. There, he laid her by the fire and wrapped her in the blankets from their bed to keep her warm. When she awoke the next morning she could remember nothing of the previous night.

 

“After that, things went on as normal once more, until the night of the second anniversary of the child’s birth. Once again, Faren woke to find his wife gone and once again, he found her atop that very hill. On the third year, he waited up, watching her and sure enough, at roughly the same time that Faren had carried the child to the hill, she got up out of their bed and headed towards the door. Faren was ready and he stopped her before she reached the threshold. He picked her up and carried her back to the bed and it was then that she seemed to wake. She began to scream and carry on something terrible, kicking out at him and raking him with her nails as he tried to restrain her. She had to go, she kept telling him, someone was calling her and she had to go. Eventually he had to tie her down to the bed itself, and that is exactly what he has done every year on that same night. This year, however, things had grown worse. For the whole year, whenever Nochturon is at his fullest wax, the thrall has come upon her.

 

“When he had finished telling his awful tale, Faren looked almost relieved, as though he had released a heavy burden by sharing the knowledge that he had kept locked within him for twenty years.

 

“‘I suppose you think me a monster now,’ he sighed as he rose from the table to make the morning tea. Yes, it was morning by now — the pale winter sun was shining through the window — we had talked the night away.

 

“‘I am no judge,’ I told him, ‘but if you would have my advice I would gladly give it.’

 

“Faren nodded, his hazel eyes hopeful, no, desperate. I could see that he would give anything to end the curse that had blighted his marriage.

 

“‘You must tell Lileth the truth,’ I told him, noting the sudden bleak look that entered his eyes. I could see that he had considered doing exactly that on many occasions.

 

“‘But she will leave me!’ he cried, tears rolling down his grizzled face. ‘If I tell her that I killed our only child she will hate me.’

 

“‘Maybe,’ I told him honestly, ‘but it is the only way to break the spell. The child’s spirit is obviously calling her, wanting her to know the truth and it will keep on doing so until you tell her. One night she might escape and you may not find her in time. She might die of exposure, or worse. She could even suffer the same fate as her child. Do you want that Faren?’

 

“No, Faren didn’t want that. He shook his head miserably. I could see that my words had found their mark, and with a heavy sigh he went through to the other room. I didn’t follow, it was a time they needed to be left alone. I tried not to listen to their voices, but it was difficult, especially when Lileth’s became shrill and angry. Soon Faren came out of the room. He joined me at the table and his eyes were dead.

 

“‘She hates me,’ he said flatly and despite my resolve to remain aloof I could not help but place a hand on his shoulder in a futile effort to comfort him.

 

 

“Did she leave him then?” the young woman asked, and Carl was astonished to see that she was actually weeping; tears rolled down her freckled cheeks, sparkling like jewels in the candle-light. Why was the story affecting her so? Yes, it had brought a lump to his own throat at times, but it was just a story, wasn’t it? It shouldn’t make anyone weep, should it? Unless it was true?

 

“No,” Bran smiled, “She didn’t leave him. She came out of the bedroom and placed her hands on his shoulders.

 

“‘I should hate you for what you did, Faren,’ she told him sternly, her own eyes red with crying. ‘But I know you did what you thought was best and I know you were trying to protect me. I’ve loved you for thirty-five years and no matter how angry I try to be, or how much I try to hate you, I can’t.’

 

“‘You … you’re not going to leave me?’ Faren’s eyes blazed with hope as he turned to look up at her.

 

“‘No,’ she sighed, ‘I’m not going to leave you, but I want you to do me one favour.’

 

“‘Anything!’ Faren cried, jumping to his feet and holding her to him. ‘I would do anything for you Lileth, you know that.’

 

“‘Good,’ she smiled. ‘The next time I get the calling I want you to let me go. You see I know now. My child is still alive somewhere. It wasn’t eaten by wolves. Someone found it and cared for it and now it is alive and looking for its mother. That’s why the calling has come more often this year, don’t you see, Faren? My child is looking for me and I must follow where it leads.’

 

“Faren sighed and shook his head. I could see that he didn’t believe that his child lived, but he would agree to her request; he couldn’t do otherwise. All he could do was to let her go, and follow her to make sure no harm befell her.”

 

 

As Bran finished his story, Carl felt tears sting his own eyes. He could see poor Faren following his wife as her trance took her who-knows-where. Maybe they *would* find their child, maybe it *was* still alive. At that thought he turned again to the young woman, his suspicions heightened to fever-pitch by the story and her unseen right hand. Maybe she *was* the child. Perhaps that was why the story had affected her so badly. As he watched she began to unfasten the clasp of her cloak with her left hand. Now he would find out! When she took off the cloak the withered right arm would be exposed and he would know the truth! He jumped to his feet, eager to take the cloak from her, eager to see what malformed limb the poor girl kept hidden under there. As he did so, the door opened again and he almost cried out his disappointment.

 

With a sigh he turned towards the door and began to walk towards the newcomer, forcing himself to become the cheerful innkeeper once again. As he approached the young man who had entered, he turned to take one last look at the girl, who was busy rummaging in her pack, with both hands. Both hands! Both, perfectly formed, slender-fingered hands! He almost laughed aloud at his own stupidity. How could he have let himself get so carried away? Bran was obviously a seasoned talespinner, so the story couldn’t be true. How had he let himself be taken in by such a story, to the point where he suspected a young girl of being the tale’s subject, just because she was left-handed?

 

“You old fool!” he scolded himself, shaking his head and smiling as he went to take the young man’s cloak. The smile, however, froze on his lips as the young man’s withered right arm was brought into view.

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