I’m posting this short story (written January-February 2017 — one of those comfortable plotbunnies mentioned in my December Ishness) in honor of Jenelle Schmidt’s February is Fantasy Month short story challenge, which is to write and post a short story of 3,000 words or less, which is fantasy and contains the word snow.
This half-written (at the time) story seemed to fit. (It’s slightly over 3K words, but close enough. ;))
I hope you enjoy. 🙂
Thanks to Caroline Knightley for Kendric’s accidental name, Jenelle Schmidt for the finish-inducing challenge, Christine Smith and my sister for timely encouragement and much-needed support, and the epic sounds of Celtic Christmas music (including this one) which helped inspire this story. And to you, reader, for stepping for a moment into this little tale.
by Deborah O’Carroll
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow
In the bleak mid-winter
— In the Bleak Midwinter (Traditional Carol)
~ ~ ~
Dusk fell, and with it his restraint. He had to go—no matter the cost.
Kendric left the lonely woods and strode out across the moor. His long black hair was tied back at the nape of his neck, and a threadbare coat of midnight blue hung from his shoulders—little comfort against the unforgiving chill of this crisp winter night, but he could bear it—for love.
White clouds of mist swirled up from the cold hollows he wandered through as he crossed the moor, the heather touched with frost. His way was lit only by the sky’s silver-grey waning light, and here and there the touch of a will o’ the wisp or other fae lights in the growing shadows. The faerie lights glimmered through the winter-bare trees and shone through the white mist on the moor, as though the stars themselves had come down upon the earth.
More lights appeared ahead—the evening star hung directly above the old mansion on the moor, its dark bulk black against the darkening sky. Golden light filled the windows, brighter in the darkness, like the sun looking out of the windows of Night.
He drew nearer and stopped just outside, watching through the nearest window. Figures moved within, dancing, and strains of music came softly to his ears—the low half-melancholy purr of a violin, a harp like a tinkling brook, the distant strains of the pipes.
Kendric stood alone outside in the darkness as the snow began to fall, watching the scene inside the place he had long known.
A place from which he was forever barred.
“With the face I call my own, at least,” he murmured.
From within his threadbare coat, he took out a black mask like a raven’s face and pulled it over the top half of his face. He slipped inside the mansion through a side door.
Music enveloped him, along with a crowd of dancers in masks, through whom he pushed his way unobtrusively, brushing past the Steward of the house and other faces he knew behind their masks. The midwinter ball was well underway. Ladies’ full gowns twirled around the floor, and men’s dark coat-tails flew as they danced and spun their ladies about in the light of a thousand candles.
One lady was more radiant than them all, at least to Kendric’s eye. She wore a dress like snow, lacy, glistening, pristinely white. Fair hair piled in abundance atop her head, like a mound of sunshine, tendrils escaping to frame the white mask like a swan which graced her gently smiling face.
With one purpose, he approached her, and in the heartbeat between two melodies he whisked her away from her last partner who stepped away, and they were off into the next dance.
Laughing, she tilted her head to look up into his masked face. For a moment, she did not know him; the next, recognition brought a gasp which stole her laughter away. She mouthed his name, but no sound came to her lips as she stared into his smiling eyes.
Kendric gave a quiet nod. “Vanessa,” he murmured in acknowledgment as they continued to dance.
She tensed in his arms, worry creasing her brow, and threw a look over her shoulder—but no one seemed to pay them particular heed.
“How have you come here? Did no one see you arrive?” she whispered.
Kendric shook his head. “No one; unless the stars above or the stones of this house would tell of it.”
Vanessa relaxed. A smile bloomed on her face, radiant as the light through the windows or the sun-like hue of her hair. “Then we will be happy, and not speak for now,” she said. “Nothing in the worlds exists besides us two.”
Kendric smiled too. “As you say, love,” he said softly.
They danced. The music wove a path for their feet, and their hearts carried them together in complete harmony. In that moment, all was perfect.
But like the last glimmer of the sun before nightfall—like the evening star gleaming reflected in a still pool before a stone drops and destroys the reflection in a splashing ripple—it could not last.
The Steward of the house, one of the few who wore no mask, his face solemn, slim, and craggy as a stone, pushed his way silently through the dancing crowd. He had returned with his master—the young man with a black coat, fair hair, and a hawk mask, who was called the lord of that place. Lost in their bliss of dancing, Vanessa and Kendric did not notice them at first.
The Steward stood aside, and the lord of the mansion pounced like a hawk on the dancing lovers. Thrusting himself between them, so that they were forced to stop in sudden startlement, he tore the raven mask away from Kendric’s face.
The music ceased. The crowd stopped dancing—some of the couples moved away, creating a bare space around the two young men standing eye to eye, with the white-gowned lady at their side.
“Skandar,” she began, addressing the lord with hair as fair as hers; but he did not turn away from the black haired young man in the threadbare midnight-blue coat.
“Step away from my sister,” Skandar said—although they had already stepped apart.
Neither moved further. Skandar’s furious gaze through his hawk mask never wavered from Kendric, who did not back down and eyed him levelly, calm.
“You would show your face here?” Skandar demanded.
“I did not intend to, and in fact did not—until you knocked my mask off. You have only yourself to blame for showing my face,” Kendric said mildly.
Skandar clawed his own mask off and flung it to the floor. The quiet sound rang through the hall like a thunderclap in the still silence. Every eye present remained fixed on the two young men facing each other . . . they who once had been as brothers.
Skandar’s voice was dangerously even. “You were banished—a mercy too good for you, but I gave it. Did I not swear that if you set foot here again I would see you punished with death? You have come. And now you will pay for it.”
“Skandar, please,” Vanessa pleaded, taking her brother’s arm.
He spun to face her. “Kendric killed him—in this very mansion!”
“I know you’re upset—” she began.
“If anyone should be upset about the murder of the lord of this mansion, I should. It is my father we’re talking of,” Kendric said gravely.
Skandar’s voice tore from his throat like a wounded animal’s howl as he shouted in Kendric’s face: “He was like my father too!”
Vanessa turned desperate eyes to Kendric. Her voice cracked in an almost-whisper. “Why did you come?”
Kendric glanced at her. His look said it all: that he could not stay away. Instead of answering aloud, he passed her an expression which said plainer than words, “I love you.” Then he was gone—slipped outside past the standing figures before any could catch him.
“After him!” Skandar cried.
Several men in the room surged outside in his wake. Skandar urged them all to horse, and with their grim lord at their head, they galloped in pursuit of Kendric, who rode away across the moor on a black horse with the white evening star on its forehead.
Kendric looked back, once, before he was lost in the snowy midwinter darkness—looked back at the woman in white who stood alone on the steps outside. Their gazes met across the distance. Snowflakes fell around her like the melancholy chords of a harp now silenced as she watched her love ride away in the night.
Vanessa would have done something to help him—anything—if she could.
But it was night, and that was her brother’s hour.
It would be long before the dawn.
~ ~ ~
Kendric galloped hard through the night, the men on horses galloping relentlessly after him.
The chase left the whitening moor under a blanket of hoof-print disturbed snow as Kendric rode into the forest, snowflakes falling about him in the blackness, driving into his eyes with a bitter wind. His hair whipped back behind him, and his horse’s mane and tail streamed in the wind to meld with the embracing shadows as he galloped through the woods.
The bare trees welcomed him into their stronghold, and the shadows of their branches intertwined, lining the ground in interlacing patterns beneath the speed of his passing.
The hoof beats pounded unrelenting behind.
Kendric bent lower to his horse’s neck and rode for all his worth.
Faerie lights lit his way, and moved off in false trails in attempts to misdirect the pursuit. Shadowy and fae beings flitted in the shadows half-unseen, giving him what aid they could, which was little—they could not well come between these two lords. The trees made a way for him and the land beneath guided him onward, while slowing his pursuers and tangling their way with branches—for the land loved Kendric.
But Skandar rode after, disregarding the distractions and obstacles, almost unchecked; for he was Night, driven by a rage born of a broken love like a wounded animal, and nothing would stand in his way.
So they galloped through the night: quarry and hunters, matched; Kendric always a little ahead, but unable to escape completely.
When his horse could carry him no further, he released it and it melted into the shadows, save for the fading evening star which guided Kendric through the wood.
He ran on alone now, through the trees with shouts behind him. At times a stone would trip him, but still he ran. He passed a river which flowed in the winter night over a waterfall, its rushing sound like the wild call of the pipes as the wind sighed through the trees like a violin, the snow falling like the harp chords which had carried Kendric and Vanessa through their joined dance . . .
He could not run much longer. The night had been long and the sky began to silver with the hint of dawn. The snow ceased falling. In a last effort, Kendric scrambled up a rocky hillside through the thinning trees. The treacherous stones threatened to dislodge him with their slippery ice, but he made it to the top, his breath ragged wisps of white on the air.
Skandar and his men had dismounted and climbed behind him, gaining.
Stumbling forward, Kendric emerged from the last of the bare trees and onto a flat hilltop clothed in an untouched blanket of white snow in a circle of standing stones with a natural rock formation behind them. Kendric ran into the ring of standing stones which stood nearly black in silhouette against the sky just before dawn.
“Kendric!” Skandar shouted. He was mere steps behind, crossing into the ring himself, sword in one hand—with the other, he seized the flapping end of Kendric’s coat and wrenched at him.
Kendric swung around and pulled free of his grasp. Skandar swung his sword and Kendric took a couple of quick steps backward to escape it, but a stone hidden in the snow betrayed him, catching his heel.
Kendric fell backward and lay full-stretch on his back, his black hair, outstretched arms, and blue coat spread out to either side atop the blanket of white. The blade had merely nicked his arm, but he lay there without attempting to get up, looking up at Skandar, who stood over him with the sword pointed at him. They remained motionless like that for several heartbeats.
Kendric stared calmly, unblinking, unresisting, at the face of the fair-haired young man who had once been like his brother, who now held a sword ready to end his life. In Skandar’s eyes was only betrayal and anguish. A single drop of blood fell from the tip of the sword blade and blossomed scarlet on the glistening snow.
“Why?” came Skandar’s voice in a hoarse whisper with a wisp of frosty breath. “Why did you do it?”
“I’ve done nothing wrong of which you accuse me,” Kendric said quietly.
Excruciating conflicting doubt twisted across Skandar’s features. “Then who did?” he challenged.
Kendric glanced past Skandar’s form looming above him, to the other men from the mansion who stood fanned out motionless behind their lord just within the ring of standing stones. “Only the stones of the mansion could tell you that.”
“You can prove nothing of your own innocence?” Skandar demanded.
Kendric blinked passively. “Of course not. You have only my word.”
Skandar drew a hissing breath of indecision.
“That used to be enough,” said a new voice.
In their focus on one another, neither Kendric nor Skandar had noticed the new hoof beats.
Just as the sun rose in a flash of golden dawn light bursting from behind the rock formation, Vanessa rode around it into view on a horse as white as the snow all around them; as white as her gown. She swung to the ground—in a swish of her long dress with the lace like a bushel of snowflakes poured down the front—and landed lightly on the snow, the brilliant sunrise behind her sun-gold hair. In a moment she was beside Kendric.
Kendric got to his feet and stood by the lady, who slipped her arm through his as they faced Skandar together.
“He has done nothing,” Vanessa said. “And in your heart you know it, brother. I know you loved his father as your own, but you seek revenge and justice blindly, in the wrong place. Kendric loved his father beyond anything, except perhaps you and I. He would never murder his own father, as much as it may appear that he did. Can’t you trust him, as you used to? No one knows what really happened, but I know—and you should know—that Kendric had nothing to do with it.”
“No one knows what happened . . .” Skandar repeated, half under his breath. “. . . Only the stones of the mansion.” Abruptly, he spun on his heel, the flashing arc of his sword glinting in the sunrise as he still gripped the handle and strode toward the edge of the circle to return to the mansion. His voice turned to harsh determination. “Then we’ll ask them.”
Kendric and Vanessa shared a brief look before stepping quickly after him.
But as Skandar moved to pass between two of the standing stones, he ran up against an invisible force which flung him backward into the snow, sword flying from his grasp as snow exploded into the air around him. The ring of stones shook violently.
The blast made to knock the other men over too, and they all staggered. Kendric stepped before Vanessa to shield her from whatever was happening, keeping her from the brunt of the blast.
Everyone slowly regained their steady footing as the shudder of the stone circle stilled, and they looked at one another.
“The stones are keeping us here, my lord,” one of the men said to Skandar.
“Why would—?” Vanessa began.
Skandar regained his feet in an angry jerk and retrieved his sword, looking around as if for something to wield it on.
But Kendric had already spied the one man who stood outside the ring of stones, watching them distantly from his emotionless stone-like narrow face. Kendric lightly touched Skandar’s arm and wordlessly jerked his chin toward the Steward.
Skandar’s eyes fixed on him and he went suddenly cold and ominous. “What is this?” he demanded.
“The stones of the mansion will tell you nothing,” the Steward said coolly. “They serve only me. As do these.” He nodded almost imperceptibly at the ring of standing stones. “Just as the rest of the land will serve me when all of you are gone.”
Fury crossed Skandar’s face and he pounded his fist against the invisible force which held them within the ring. The stones shuddered again. “This was you, was it? Just let me get my hands on you—!”
“You will not leave this circle,” the Steward said.
“We’ll see about that,” Vanessa said softly.
But the standing stones writhed and began slowly moving inward, in jerks, as if reluctant. The men of the mansion uneasily backed toward the center of the constricting circle of stones, which would crush them if they continued.
Skandar fixed his gaze on the Steward a moment longer, then sheathed his sword, drew a calming breath, and stepped back. “It seems I was wrong about you, brother.” He placed a hand on Kendric’s shoulder and bowed his head. “I . . .” He looked back up and could not continue.
He had no need to.
Kendric’s face remained serious under the life-threatening situation of their traitor Steward, but Kendric’s eyes smiled forgiveness at Skandar—a forgiveness which had been there for a long time.
A look between brother and sister and all was right with them.
Then the three faced the Steward who stood without the circle as the stones continued shifting nearer the doomed group within.
Kendric spoke. “We call the stones to witness.” He glanced at the stones—still grinding forward inch by inch—and went on. “If he has unlawfully slain the former lord of this land and some of your number were witness to it, then show it now by disclaiming his power over you.” Kendric drew himself up, Skandar on his left—a hand on Kendric’s shoulder—and Vanessa on his right with her arm through his, and he went on, voice ringing clear in the frozen dawn air.
“The rightful lords of this land and its lady call upon the timeless stones to free themselves from their enslavement to this unfaithful one who has forfeit his authority over them by his base treachery.”
A deep shudder ran through the standing stones, which shook the ground at their base.
Then they stilled.
A calm fell across the circle. Everyone there could sense the absence of the invisible force holding them inside the ring. The cluster of men breathed again.
The three standing alone remained unmoving and looked across at the Steward. His craggy rock-like face twitched very slightly, but that was all, and his stony eyes stared back at them.
“As for you . . .” Skandar growled.
Kendric cut him off, calm but authoritative, fixing the Steward with an unwavering look. “Begone. Return to your mountain fortress or wherever you dwell, and do not come to this land again.”
The Steward seemed to bend against his will, crumbled stone-like for a moment, and an instant later was gone, leaving a bare patch of ground in the snow where he had been.
As one, Skandar, Kendric, and Vanessa all collapsed to their knees and the next moment had clasped each other in a three-way hug as they knelt in the snow together.
“I think you missed me, then,” Kendric managed to gasp out, half laughing, as soon as he could breathe through the tight clasp the other two held him in, which he returned.
“Missed you!” Skandar scoffed. “Why would such a scoundrel be missed—you interrupted my midwinter ball!”
“And you, brother mine,” Vanessa said, shooting Skandar a laughing look, “interrupted our dance.”
“And you interrupted my death,” Kendric remarked to Vanessa.
She smiled. “Always.” He smiled back.
Skandar sobered a moment, then recovered. “Well, that’s one we don’t need to continue. But for the other two—well.” He surged to his feet, the other two rising with him, and they turned to join the group of men who had been stamping cold booted feet in the snow and moving arms to warm them, murmuring about heading home but cautious of disturbing the lords and lady.
“Yes . . . for the other two?” Kendric prompted, still smiling, his arm around Vanessa.
“We’ll go amend their interruptions by returning to the mansion and finishing them properly, shall we?” Skandar said, a mischievous half-smile quirking his lips. “After all, there’s no interrupted ball or dance which can’t be even better when taken up again.”
Vanessa smiled too. “With all my heart.”
Kendric, Vanessa, and Skandar followed the others to the horses, Kendric in the middle with their arms about him and his about them, the three claiming each other as their own once more—dark head between two fair ones.
Together they left the ring of standing stones to the glistening snow under the brilliant light of a golden dawn.