Season’s End

There once was a girl who was born of the storm.

Her name was Cirrus and she was daughter to the King of Storms. But that isn’t important. It was where her story started but it didn’t define it. In truth she remembered little of that time, just rage and pain and fear. The important moment, the first one that she remembered clearly, was when something broke through all the bluster and rage of her father like the sun through the clouds. The first thing that she remembered was a face, peaking in at her through a window in the tower she lived in.

This was the boy who didn’t fear the Storm King. He would come to visit whenever he could sneak away from his parents’ chores and goats. To begin with she tried desperately to ignore him. Her father was always angry when she spoke to the villagers who came to give him offerings and she desperately tried not to make him angry for he would punish her for all her faults, real and imagined. But the boy was persistent.

He began to appear more and more, making funny faces and trying to get her to laugh or talk to him. Though Cirrus kept trying to ignore him she found herself watching for his brown hair or blue eyes at the window, listening for his whistle. Eventually she gave in and they would occasionally play together. Only in her room, for she wasn’t allowed to leave the tower and didn’t want to risk her father finding out that she had made a friend.

She tried to keep him calm and happy, coming when he called and performing any chore he had for her. But some things are inevitable and she could not calm the storm’s anger. He needed to do that himself and he found blaming Cirrus easier.

Then one day she was curled in her bed, tears falling like raindrops from her eyes, her cheeks smarting from her father’s latest remonstrations. She wasn’t aware that the boy had picked that day to visit until he was sitting next to her, an arm awkwardly outstretched in the half-formed promise of a hug he wasn’t sure he should deliver.

“Why are you crying?” he asked.

Without knowing what else to say she told him, “Because my father is angry. And when he’s angry he hits me.”

His face grew dark and Cirrus shrank back from him, scared that she had made him, her one friend, angry and that he would hit her. But his fury was not directed at her.

“Pack your clothes and whatever you don’t want to leave behind. I’m getting you out of here and taking you where he can’t hurt you ever again.”

“But that will just make him more angry!”

The boy smiled at her a crooked, half formed grin. “Then let him be angry at me. I can take it.”

The girl of storms packed mechanically, not believing that escape was possible. The Storm King would track them down and then she’d be in even more trouble. But she didn’t have the energy to fight and so she gathered her things and followed the boy out of the window and to the village below.

First he led her to a blacksmiths but it was closed up and dark. So he took her to a house instead, banging on the door and demanding to be let in. Cirrus followed behind, not paying much attention to her surroundings, still just going through the motions. She listened vaguely until she heard the boy say, “I need you to take her and go far away, where he can never find her again. Please.”

Then the reality of the situation finally began to settle in and she peaked around her friend at the people who would save her.

There were two women standing there. These were the mothers that Cirrus would come to love. One was big and expressive. She wore her bronze hair short and was always ready with a hug and a kind word. She was the mother of metal, called Eos or sometimes Kaolinite. The other was the mother of ice, Uki. Her hair was dark and she wore thick gloves on her hands. She was often withdrawn and quiet but when Cirrus needed her she was there and held her hand so tight. They were both bearers of cursed blades, one a dagger, one a sword, that they didn’t let out of their sight.

They all looked at each other then Uki glanced at Eos for a quick moment.

“We’ll look after her,” said the shorter one as the other nodded.

And like that she had a real family.

The boy went running after that, back to his family and out of her life, though not out of her thoughts. Eos sent a quick glance skating over the building before turning to Uki.

“I need to get some things from the smithy. Can you stay here for a while?”

Uki smiled coldly and showed her the bronze dagger. “He wouldn’t be the first elemental I’ve killed and I’d mourn him a lot less.”

“Take care.” With that Eos left and Uki started rummaging around, finding some rucksacks and filling it with food and other things. Cirrus stayed crouched by the fire, staring into the flickering flames and wondering when this dream would end. She was startled to feel a quick touch on her shoulder, gentle as a snowflake, and turned to see Uki standing there.

“Don’t worry,” was all she said. “You’re safe with us.”

And then the blacksmith return, packed a few more things and they were gone.

Across the plains, over hills and through forests they travelled, Uki stalking ahead, cold eyes searching out the path while Eos helped Cirrus along. They would hide from storm clouds, flinch from investigating breezes. Every night they’d huddle together, sharing Uki’s furs and Eos’ cloak, not willing to risk a fire that might draw attention. Cirrus would stare up at the sky, waiting for the thunder of approaching footsteps or the crack of a slap. But each day they would get up and start moving again, getting further and further away, and she began to hope.

Safety was a hole in the ground, the entrance to a tunnel that Cirrus would never have found on her own. Stepping into it was like being smothered in wool. A connection to the sky and weather that she’d never been aware of was abruptly cut off. She collapsed, gasping, but Mothers Metal and Ice sat with her, comforting her and waiting until she was strong enough to continue.

Then it was through tunnels, along passages lit only by the occasional lantern and otherwise by the glowing blades of the mothers. Through the labyrinth they strode, Eos in the lead this time and Uki holding her hand, until they came to a little green door. Kaolinite dithered in front of it, suddenly nervous, before knocking.

A small man opened the door, squinting up at them. His eyes were green and his hair a muddy brown. He was the same size as Cirrus and Uki and Kaolinite towered over him. “Hi Dad,” Mother Metal said awkwardly. “We needed to go where the storm couldn’t find us. Can we stay here for a while?”

There was a pause and Cirrus was afraid that all the travel would have been for nought. Showing up unexpectedly like this? She knew fathers and knew that a beating was what was expected. She flinched back when the knocker yelled but it was in delight, not anger.

“Of course, of course, come in!” he cried, seizing his daughter and guiding them inside to the fire.

And her family got a little bigger.

Grampa Kernowite dotted on her. She learned that Kaolinite, his daughter, had come to him as a teenager and that he’d never seen a child as young as her before. He would bring her little presents, interesting rocks and a few sweet treats that he found somewhere. She’d play with them in the flickering light of the fire, the sparkles in the rocks combining with the sugar in her mouth while the adults worked on expanding the home for all of them. Soon she had a room all to her own, a place of safety where she could hide away. And at first she did, spending days cowering in the quiet. Her mothers would bring her food and sit with her. Kaolinite would tell jokes while she ate and Uki would just sit in comfortable reassuring silence.

But every so often she would creep into the main room, where Grampa Kernowite would tell her stories, sometimes about the great legends of the knockers and sometimes, lovingly, teasingly, about the embarrassing things Kaolinite had done when she first lived with him. Those were her favourites, Kaolinite would squawk in fake outrage and swat at her father. Cirrus would find herself laughing, bell-like chuckles that filled the room with the smell of fresh spring rain. Slowly, like a plant growing, she began to spend more time outside. Her bedroom was always there when she needed it but she needed it less and less.

They stayed underground for years, growing in the dark and quiet. Cirrus grew taller, both inside and out. She grew confident, able to have a discussion or an argument without flinching, able to look people directly in the eye without feeling like it was a sin.

The first time she lost her temper felt like a failure. She found herself yelling at her family, her eyes flicking, her voice cracking like thunder, her hair stained a dark black. In that moment she saw herself as her father and her rage left her. Fleeing to her room she locked herself away in the dark, surrounded by self-hatred and recrimination.

It was Uki that came to her then, not Kaolinite like she would have expected. The two sat quietly for a while, getting used to each others’ presence and feeling out the situation. Then she embraced the cloud child, holding her close while she flurried with sobs.

“It isn’t wrong feeling emotions,” her mother eventually said to her. “It’s what you do with them. And while you blew and stormed you didn’t lash out. You are nothing like The Storm King.”

It was also Uki that started taking her on trips to the surface, letting her feel the weather, the sky, the wind and her connections to them. At first Cirrus was reluctant, worried that her father would find her, worried that this was another way she could be like him, but Mother Ice refused to listen to her. “The sky is a part of you,” she told her daughter. “Don’t cut yourself off out of fear.”

Cirrus might have complained more but being outside felt so good. It was like part of her soul was stretching out and connecting. So she said nothing and they’d make the journey outside regularly. Slowly she mastered her abilities. Going back underground was a pain but her family waiting for her there made it worth it.

And so, together, they persevered.

Until one day they got a message.

Deep underground they had been protected but above ground a harsh and dark winter had been raging with no ending in sight. Somehow a messenger found out where they were and came seeking Uki. He was wrapped in furs like she was but shed them as soon as he could. He and Mother Ice talked together for a while and then he went away.

That night they all gathered in the livingroom and Uki told them what had been told to her. Years ago a threat had arisen in the north and she had stopped it. Now it had returned, long before it was expected and her village had sought her out

“It’s my responsibility,” she told them. “I have to go.”

Kaolinite got up and embraced her, kissing her. “You don’t have to do this by yourself,” she told the other woman. “We’ll all go.”

And so, together, they prepared, some gathering and organising provisions, Kaolinite working on tools they’d need in her smithy. Grampa Kernowite helped them pack, made sure that they were all well provisioned and gave them big hugs. He and Kaolinite embraced for the longest, for they had been parted before and knew the pain it would bring. But they also had been reunited and knew that they would be again.

“We’ll be back,” Kaolinite promised. And then they left.

The going wasn’t easy. Snow lay thick on the ground and more joined it every day. However Cirrus found that she had some control over the weather and was able to ease their way. Uki was used to walking through snow and instructed them in the best way to do it. Together they made good progress.

But the further they went the more withdrawn Eos became. Her happy words became infrequent and she would spend hours just walking, not communicating with anyone, just staring haunted into the distance.

“We’re close, aren’t we?” Uki asked her one night. Eos grunted non-committedly, so the other woman continued. “We should go and see them. We have time and it would be good for you.”

Mother Metal looked at her wife with fear in her eyes. “But what if they drive me out again?”

“Then we will leave and think of them no longer. But you owe it to yourself to see if they’ve changed.”

Eos didn’t say anything else that night but the next day she took the lead and they headed in a slightly different direction.

By and by they came to a village. To Cirrus it looked identical to the others they’d passed through but Eos looked at it as if it was a dangerous beast, waiting to devour them. But Uki took her hand and she took a deep breath and led them through the scattered buildings to where a blacksmiths’ bordered on a house. She knocked on the door and after a while it opened.

The man looking back at them was clearly the blacksmith. He had the same general physique as Eos, with broad shoulders and thick, muscular arms. Life had carved deep lines into his face, beneath his brown hair and around brown eyes so like Mother Metal. He stared at Eos with shock for a moment, as another woman, his wife, came to see who was at the door.

“Eos,” the blacksmith breathed and then he threw himself at her in a hug. His wife joined them a moment later.

And her family got a little bigger.

They stayed there for a few days, healing and learning about one another anew. The weaver and the blacksmith were full of tearful apologies for how they had behaved, devastated that they had lost their daughter. Eos listened to these words and embraced them afterwards. They didn’t fix the past but it made it easier to face the future.

Sadly the winter waited for no man and, freshly provisioned and with hearts now full of good cheer, they left once again, promising to return.

They travel for almost a week before a flash of light cut through the night in front of them and they found themselves before a curious sight. A lighthouse, in the middle of a forest, the beam of it’s light swinging carefully through the darkness. They climbed the hill to its base together and knocked on the door.

The man who answered the door was a wizard according to Eos but he didn’t look like one to Cirrus. He wore a belt of tools and a leather apron instead of the robes that she would have thought and he had thinning brown hair instead of a glorious white mane and beard. But his eyes were kind when he greeted the travellers, beckoned them inside and made them comfortable.

“How can I help?” he asked while they drank from warm mugs of soup.

“You might not remember,” Eos began. “But many years ago you asked me to make you a heart.”

“Ah, the bronze worker,” the wizard replied. “You did excellent work.”

“Thank you. But now I’m here to ask you a favour. We must get to the far north as quickly as possible, to help stop this winter. Can you help?”

The wizard thought about it for a moment then smiled. “You’re in luck,” he said. “And right on time.”

They spent the rest of the night and the following day resting, enjoying being inside where it was warm and comfortable. Then that night he took them up to the top of the tower, where the beckoning light turned and flashed. They stood there, staring out into the darkness while the snow fell around them, thick white flakes that flashed in the light and then were gone. After a while Cirrus felt something approach through the air, something that felt like no cloud she’d ever encountered, too thick and solid.

It wasn’t a cloud and suddenly a ship was there, balanced impossibly on thin air. Details came sparingly with every flash of the light. One flash showed the sky blue hull, another the green sails, a third the name, The Emerald Queen, and the last the crew, dressed in long, blue coats and running about, getting ready to dock.

“This should get you north,” the wizard told the family.

“No, we can’t,” the captain of the ship said a little later. They were sitting together in the wizard’s bedroom while the rest of the crew were running up and down the stairs outside. “The wind is blowing from the north and we can’t sail against it. In this weather we might not even be able to leave. I’m seriously considering staying here until the winter is past.”

“This winter will never pass,” Uki told him. “Unless we get north.”

“I’m sorry,” the captain replied. “But we can’t get you there.”

The two glared at each other until Cirrus spoke up.

“I can.”

They both turned to look at her, surprised for she was quiet and rarely spoke. She inwardly quailed under their stares but kept talking. “I am the daughter of The Storm King. I can feed the wind into your sails if you will take us there.”

“It seems the easiest way to solve this problem,” the wizard said from where he’d been sitting quietly, watching the discussion. The captain stared at Cirrus with calculating eyes.

“If you can do what you say then we have a deal,” he finally said. “This winter is bad for business and we’ll all be for the better if you can stop it.”

And so they join the crew. The next day they went to board and saw the wizard standing on board talking to a man in a wheelchair and a woman made of metal. The woman considered them as they came on deck, her hair dyed the green of the sails, a sword sheathed at her waist while the hilt of another poked over her shoulder. On her left breast Mother Metal’s maker mark stood out prominently.

“Did you make her?” Cirrus asked her mother but the blacksmith shook her head.

“She made the heart that powers that body,” the wizard said. “Serafina came to me a sword that slotted into what you see before you. The mark appeared on its own over time.”

Serafina glared at Mother Metal in such a way that Mother Ice edged in front of her wife, one hand on the cursed dagger. Then, without a word she turned and stalked off. The man, who was a mechanic called Malcolm apologised. “She’s had a hard time of it and is not fond of her body,” he explained. “Just leave her alone.”

The rest of the packing went fine and the wizard said his goodbyes and left, casting off the ropes that bound The Emerald Queen to the lighthouse. The captain made a tour to ensure everything was shipshape then turned to the Cloud girl. “Shall we be off?”

Cirrus grabbed at the wind and bent it to her will. The prow turned to the north and, with a gust, they were away!

It was slow going. Cirrus could feed the sails but only if she stayed on deck. When she was too tired or cold they had to drop anchor while she went below decks to recover. Her mothers would spend time with her when they could, or the mechanic in the wheelchair would carve her wooden figurines but her most consistent companion was Serafina, the metal woman. She was constantly on deck, keeping watch, helping to furl and reef the sails, practising with her sword. But most of the time she walked the railing, her eyes ever outward.

“What are you looking out for?” Cirrus asked her one time while she was carefully threading wind into the sails.

“Sky pirates,” the sword said to her. She wasn’t sure whether that was a joke or not but spent the rest of the trip sending fearful looks to at the abyss beyond the ships’ railings.

Eventually, slower than they’d have liked but far, far quicker than if they’d walked, they came to the far north and the village that waited for them. The village whose name meant First Warning.

The ship didn’t stay long after they disembarked, let down on bosuns seats to the ground below. Once it was unloaded it turned south and was snatched away by the wind. Cirrus, Eos and Uki turned to see the villagers who came to greet them.

Most of them were welcoming and happy to see them but not the elders. They began lambasting Uki, right there in the ice and snow.

“You shouldn’t have left,” they said.

“I needed to,” she replied.

“We needed you here for when this happened again. We needed our Hero.”

“I would have wasted away here, torn by inner turmoil. There was no place for me here, waiting for something that could never have come.”

“But come it did,” they told her.

“I’m here to set things right,” she finished and would say no more.

That evening the sun set but it didn’t rise the next morning.

They set out into the cold and darkness. Eos had prepared for this, in her forge, and they clutched handwarmers deep in their pockets, strapped snow shoes to their feet and walked across the frozen plains, tied together and heading ever northward. Days past without notice, the dark making them meaningless. At night they huddled together in their tent, the spark of the fire the only light they would see. Every day was just like the last and nothing was different.

Until one day it was.

The glaciers rose before them like a slow wave, cresting the horizon and threatening to bury everything they knew. The ice walls looked eternal and unbreachable but Uki had beaten them before. It hadn’t been without cost but she had grown in ability and experience. And this time she wasn’t alone.

And so Uki made the climb but she did it with bronze climbing spikes that Eos had specially made. Only the tip was her special bronze and would sink in easily before the water froze around it. She did it with a rope around her waist, fastened to each spike she drove in and with her wife and daughter holding the other end. So when she did fall, near the top with the end in sight, her family was there to catch her.

First Eos then Cirrus came after her, carefully tying the rope on and half climbing, half being pulled up. They rested at the top, on the frozen sea where curls of waves lurked under the blanket of snow. Then they set off again, to the castle of ice that appeared in the distance.

“Almost there,” Uki muttered, almost to herself. She said it to be reassuring but it came out like a dark promise.

They crossed the sea, tripped and sliding but not falling, with the mocking call of the wind swirling around them. They reached the castle, a beautiful building made of ice. Uki said there was marble bones supporting it but if there was Cirrus couldn’t see them, just flawless prisms of green, purple and blue. Up the stairs they went and through the doors, following the wind. Uki took the lead, knew the way and they passed the frozen wonders of architecture like they weren’t there. The voice on the wind changed, turning from mocking laughter to tears.

Then they were in the throne room and the source of the winter, of all the hardship was before them.

Not on the throne but beside it, curled in a ball of white fur, hair and sadness. A little girl, sobbing her heart out.

Cirrus stared at the girl and saw herself, who she had once been, lost and alone and scared.

Her mothers’ stepped forward, Metal and Ice, different but the same.

“You have been causing these storms, this winter.” One said. It didn’t matter which, for they were both united in this.

“You have hurt people. You are hurt yourself.”

“But that doesn’t matter. We are here now. We are here for you.”

They both smiled and warm that had nothing to do with the seasons and everything to do with love filled the room. “We will take care of you, our daughter will teach you to control your powers.”

“You are safe. You are loved.”

“You won’t be alone any more.”

Cirrus looked down at the girl who would become her sister.

“Don’t worry,” Cirrus said. “We’re here for you now.”

The girl of ice got up from where she was crying on the floor and embraced the girl of storms. They held each other close, sharing the pain and reassurance. Slowly the women of metal and cold joined them, enfolding them in protection and love.

And their family got a little bigger.

The Searching Sword

Who am I? Wish I knew. But for the moment I’m going by Serafina.

I started life not as the woman you see before you but as a sword, a consciousness gradually awakening over time. I don’t know how common that is, a sword awakening. We’re not a chatty lot, the only time we talk is when we meet in combat. But then we sing.

I had a wielder back then, a man named Eric. He would talk to me and appreciate me, even when I couldn’t talk back. I grew to love him, his firm hand on my hilt and the sure way he swung me. And once I could communicate with him, he came to love me back.

I think.

Because suddenly he started talking about me having a body. A human one, not my sword self. I thought what we had was personal, two being working on concert but it somehow wasn’t enough for him. He wanted me to give that up, to stop being a sword, to become something else.

I wasn’t sure. I was happy as I was. But I also loved him. If that was what he wanted maybe changing myself wouldn’t be so bad.

I didn’t even understand how it would be possible but Eric was always capable at getting his way. There was a wizard at that time in the west. Eric heard about him and took me to him, asking him to make a body for me. I wasn’t as aware of my surroundings when I was a sword. I could feel anything that touched me and I could talk to my holder but that was it. So when I was suddenly handed to someone else and another voice talked to me it was a shock.

“Are you sure you want me to make you a body, a different form to this one?” The wizard asked me.

And I replied I want my wielder to be happy. This is what he wants.

With those words I sealed my fate.

The work on my body went quickly. Barely a month later I was again in the wizard’s hands, passing over my new vessel. I didn’t really have much of an opinion on it, who was I to judge a body when I’d never had one? One final time he asked me, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

I’m sure, I told him, like a fool. I want to do this.

Then I was inserted and there was pain.

I don’t think humans realise just how much the world is. I had senses now and they were bombarded, all of them. There was smell first of all, a completely alien sensation telling me all about what was around me whether I wanted it to or not. I had a mouth and it was filled with copper. Unfocused light blazed through my eyes and thunder pounded through my ears. The silk of my clothing grated upon my skin and the table was rough and solid beneath me, gravity pressing me down into it.

And then something I recognised. A hand in mine, one I knew intimately. Eric.

I focused on that, letting it be my anchor. Slowly the confusion of the universe died down, became manageable. I was able to focus on him and see his face for the first time. It was handsome, I suppose, symmetrical and all that. But it wasn’t as important as his hand in mine.

He helped me to my feet and we went outside, gods, the light inside had been dim, and started down the hill. I could see that we’d been inside a lighthouse in the middle of a forest but I didn’t think to question it. I was too busy taking it all in, the colours of the trees, the sounds of the wind through the leaves. The five men with clubs who suddenly blocked our path.

My wielder had been an amazing swordsman, killing many people in duels or less dignified fights. But now he was without a sword, I was trapped inside this useless body, and the loved ones of some that he had killed had caught up with him.

He tried to talk his way out of it. It didn’t work.

I don’t want to talk about what happened next. I can barely remember it, just a blur of emotions, fear, pain, sorrow.

I came back to myself kneeling beside Eric’s still body as the wizard found me. He didn’t say anything. Just helped me to my feet and back to the lighthouse.

The wizard buried Eric where he fell, sheathing him in the earth. He would take me out to see him once a day and I’d just sit numbly beside the grave for hours at a time. Everything was too much, the sensations without and the emotions within. I was a doll, not needing any sustenance. I would probably have just sat slumped by the grave for the rest of time if not for the wizard.

He encouraged me to get up each day, to practise moving, to practise being. I still found walking hard and sensations still overwhelmed me but he helped me work on it. Apart from the time I spent by the grave he would talk to me, in low murmurs to begin with so I wouldn’t get over stimulated. He set me at a table and had me chop vegetables and cut meat for meals while he sat across from me and worked on other tasks. It helped with my dexterity and slowly I got better. The textures of the food was harder to get used to in some way, the sliminess of the meat, the rigidness of the carrot that echoed with a crack when it was cut. And yet slowly I began to notice it less, to dial down the loudness of the world. But every day was hard.

“Can I go back?” I asked the wizard at one point. “I just want to be a sword again.”

He sat down with me and, very gently, explained that my soul was now split between the sword in the sheath in my back and the rest of my body. He talked about co-efficients and balanced harmonies and a lot of other things I didn’t understand. All I got out of it was that I was trapped. This was who I was now.

I had to find something to motivate me and I went traditional. Revenge.

The day I decided to hunt down those that had killed Eric stays sharp in my mind. It wasn’t anything personal, though I’m sure it felt that way. But it gave me a reason to pick myself up whenever I fell.

It was also the day that I changed out of my clothes for the first time. I’d been wearing the same silken dress since I’d got this body and it was beginning to get in the way. It tugged and slid over my skin in uncomfortable ways, binding my legs if I moved wrong. The wizard dragged out some simple homespun clothes and apologised that he didn’t have anything finer.

“I have some blue dye,” he said. “I could pretty them up a bit.”

I hesitated. I didn’t really care about the clothes but it had given me an idea.

“My hair is made of silk,” I said to him. “Could you dye that blue instead?”

He looked at me. I’m not very good at reading body language but I’m fairly sure he was thinking it was a terrible idea. But then he smiled.

“Of course. Just let me get it set up.”

I hadn’t chosen anything about my body, not really. Not what I looked like or even if I wanted to be a woman. But I chose this. And, standing in front of a mirror in my new clothes and my sky blue hair, I felt just a little bit more comfortable in myself.

I worked hard and soon I was able to focus through the distractions and toddle about the lighthouse. I no longer needed the wizard to take me out to the grave but I also didn’t spend as much time there. I had a purpose and would not be distracted.

I learned to walk and then I learned to run. It wasn’t easy, I fell a lot and acquired some dents in my face from hateful roots. But I did it.

It wasn’t enough.

The wizard looked at me strangely when I asked for a sword but he didn’t ask questions. By then I was able to move easily, steady on my feet. I could run, skip, climb the stairs and I’d taken over cooking. But that wouldn’t do me any good when I found those murders. I needed to fight.

The first thing I learned was that swords are not naturally graceful. I suppose I was lucky. Eric was a master and in his hands I swam through the air. With me, my sword flopped like a stranded fish. It was heavy and unbalanced, wavering where it should have been steady. It was like trying to learn to walk again.

And just like then persistence was the key. I practised day after day, how to stand, how to hold it, how to attack. I was lucky, I suppose I had learned something from being wielded by Eric because there was a feeling of rightness when I did something correctly. It came rarely at first but I focused on it and it started coming more and more often until I could move and it would seem like my sword and I were one.

And every time I sheathed it I thanked it for it’s work. I didn’t know if it was like me and conscious but it never hurt to be polite.

It took a year and a half before I was happy with my movements and that I could properly complete my mission. Well I was confident I could kill the men when I found them. Finding them might be a problem, I am face blind and find it hard to tell humans apart, but I was sure I’d be able to do it. I had all the time in the world.

I was just getting ready to leave when the boy came.

To be more exact I was in the middle of leaving. I had learned long ago why the wizard lived in a lighthouse. It was a port for sky ships, some far-flung outpost of a trading empire where they could refuel or repair. They came on schedule and one night, when the latest one was due, I slipped out and away. It slept wrong to sneak away like a thief, especially after all the wizard had done for me, but I didn’t like the idea of saying goodbye.

The trees were closing in around me when the sky ship floated by overhead. As usual it appeared with a suddenness that was disconcerting but I had gotten used to it. Not everyone got the chance.

I heard a harsh whinny and then the shattering of branches and something crashed away, followed by a final sounding thump. Curious despite myself I want to investigate.

There lay a boy, collapsed like a marionette with it’s strings cut. I thought for a moment he could see me but that must have been the moonlight glittering on his eyeballs. There was no sign of the horse, it must have bolted, throwing off its rider. I stared at him for a while, thinking. No one would know I had been there. I could go off on my quest and leave him here. The wizard might find him in the morning or he could regain consciousness and walk there himself. There was nothing tying me here.

Eric wouldn’t have hesitated but I am not my old wielder.

I gathered him up and brought him back to the tower. I could always leave later.

The wizard fussed around him, asking me to put him in the bed that was left on the ground floor for visitors. I carefully laid him down then stepped back. It was a few hours before the boy woke up and I learned that no, he wouldn’t have walked here in the morning. He couldn’t walk at all. That’s why he had come, seeking help from the wizard.

The wizard offered to let him stay here while he made the boy a wheelchair while I thought over this revelation. He would have died, alone and unnoticed in the forest if I had followed my impulse and left. Just like Eric.

Then the wizard said my name and I looked up to see him beckoning me over. As I walked to the bed he told the boy, “She was the one who found you.”

The boy gaped up at me, gratitude that I didn’t deserve on his face, I think. “Th..thank you,” he stammered.

It was too much. I left.

The wizard found me a bit later, kneeling by Eric’s grave. “I know you were planning on leaving,” he started in his no nonsense manner. “And obviously I can’t stop you. But I’d like to ask you to stay for a bit. I might need help with the boy and you’re stronger than I am. Please?”

I thought about it, remembering that moment when I was just going to leave him there. To die.

“I’ll stay if he needs me,” I told the wizard. “But I don’t know what help I’ll be.”

He nodded and went back inside. I stayed where I was until the sun rose. Then I got up and went back inside.

The boy’s name turned out to be Malcolm. He was good at whittling, attentive while the wizard showed him how he was putting together his wheelchair and terrible at cooking. The first time he tried he filled the room with smoke and started a fire that I had to put out. After that I agreed to teach him what I knew and, like when I started, I put him to preparing vegetables.

I would stand cooking, watching his nimble hands cutting carrots or lean against the wall while he talked to me and carved wooden figurines. His hands were fascinating to me, always moving or busy, always expressive. He would pause what he was doing to make a joke or start carving extra carefully when he was angry. I was able to read him much better than anyone else. He almost reminded me of Eric. Not that they were anything alike really but I’d connected with him through his hands as well.

After a month the chair was completed and I started getting ready to once again leave. I thought that Malcolm would go home and there’d be nothing tying me here anymore. I still had my mission. I was going to avenge my wielder.

Then the wizard said that Malcolm still had to learn how to use the chair and, though he didn’t say it, that I had to stay. And I did. I had vowed, after all, to say as long as he needed me.

And I tried to ignore the little voice in my head, calling me a traitor for being so happy about that.

Working with Malcolm was hard. I decided to help train him, after all I’d also had to learn a new way of moving, but I wasn’t a particularly good teacher and he wasn’t a good student. He fell to the floor and I’d pick him up, again and again and again, until he’d get angry.

But he always apologised, which I wasn’t expecting, and used that anger to work twice as hard. Soon he was able to get himself in and out of the chair with ease and glide across the floor smoothly and without hesitation. One night I was watching him wheel around and I don’t know what came over me. But I stepped forward and asked, “Want to dance?”

He looked surprised to be asked but I stretched out my hand to him and he took it. His fingers were sure and covered in calluses, though in different places to Eric’s. Slowly I led him around, then back again. I twirled away and he followed. Slowly, without talking, the dance evolved.

I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed dancing with another person, moving in harmony with them. It wasn’t perfect, there was stumbling and missed directions, but it didn’t have to be. I felt a part of my soul unclench and happiness spread through me. Only as long as the dance, but that was enough.

Once we’d finished I looked at him, my eyes beaming, and said, “You can move beautifully.” Then I remembered what the dance signified. “Will you be leaving now?”

I saw the confusion in his eyes, the uncertainty. But before he could answer the wizard spoke. I hadn’t even realised that he was watching.

“I’ve been thinking about it and I’d like to show you how to convert a dwelling, to make it easier for you to move about. We could do up this tower so you could get upstairs. I think a maybe a lift…”

Malcolm spun in place and then shot forward, enfolding the other man in a tight hug. Over Malcolm’s head I could see the question in the wizard’s eyes. Would I stay too?

And it was then that I put aside my revenge.

We all stayed together for another six weeks. The wizard had said that it was to convert the lighthouse and they did that. But it was just an excuse and we all knew. He began teaching the boy his trade and Malcolm took to it with ease and joy. I would still practise daily on my sword work but only to make sure I didn’t become rusty, not for any real purpose. The rest of the time I cooked and helped when needed.

Then came the storm.

A ship was due that night and the wizard was up on the roof getting the lamp set up when the lightning bolt hit. The lamp exploded and he was flung down the stairs. I managed to get to him, get him to bed and then get Malcolm. He regained consciousness once and begged us to fix the lamp. Then he sank back into a darkness I feared he would never rise from.

I thought that it was a lost cause but Malcolm wouldn’t hear of it. Even though I had to carry him up the stairs, away from his wheelchair and into the wildness of the night, he didn’t hesitate but got stuck in. We worked through the night, focused on the same task, two beings joined together through will alone. It was like being with Eric again, only constructing instead of destroying.

We managed to get it fixed just in time. The ship came safely into port and the day was saved.

A week later, a week filled with fixing and mending for all of us, and we were in the wizard’s quarters. The ship’s surgeon had nursed him back to health and, though he was still a little shaky, he was almost back to his old self.

He laid out his news quickly. The ship’s mechanic had been impressed with the work that Malcolm had done and offered him a job on the ship when it departed. Malcolm would be able to leave, to see the world in a way that he could never have dreamed off, to be free.

And yet, he hesitated. I don’t know what held him back but when he complained about not knowing anyone there I found myself talking.

“I could go with you,” I said. Then I realised what I’d said and added awkwardly, “If you want.”

He looked at me, broken in a way I didn’t understand. And then he spoke his true fear. That he wouldn’t be good enough.

We laughed at that, the wizard and I. What else could we do? He had been here mere months but I felt like I’d seen him grow up, and that I’d grown along with him. He’d accomplished so much. And he thought this was beyond him? After our laughter we kindly told him what we thought of that!

And so, together, the boy and I joined the crew of the sky ship The Emerald Queen.

She was beautiful. The bottom of her hull was painted sky blue, the same colour as my hair and the boy’s wheelchair cushion. The name was painted in golden cursive near her prow, where a figurehead nested in the shape of an eagle. The sails were as green as her name, stretching out above and to the side of the deck. She was graceful, despite her size. We gathered our luggage, what there was of it. I only had my sword, the clothes I wore and the wooden figurines Malcolm had carved for me. He had even less. We stood on the main deck, amid the bustle and shouting and, as we lifted off, I once again became disorientated.

I thought I’d gotten past this but everything was happening all at once and it was overwhelming and I just couldn’t, I couldn’t focus, I was being overwhelmed! I grasped for Malcolm’s hand and clutched it tight. I thought he looked at me, probably confused, but he didn’t pull away, only held on. I focused on that and a beat I drummed into my leg with my other hand and slowly I was able to clear the confusion. Together we stepped down into the cabin while the ship took flight, leaving our old life behind.

I hated the next few weeks. In the lighthouse I had understood my place in the world. I had a routine and a job. But on the ship I was surplus. There was nothing for me to do. I started with helping in the kitchen but they already had a cook and he had an assistant and there was no place for me. My sword was taken away from me when I tried to practise with it on the deck. They claimed it was something about regulations and that I wasn’t trained properly but when I asked to be trained they turned me away. I realised that they saw me as luggage, something that Malcolm had brought on board and not a person in my own right.

The boy kept me company, telling me about his day and occasionally I would help in the engine room. But I had neither his skill, nor his interest in the subject. I found myself spending more and more time in the hold by his hammock, turning my thoughts over and over in my mind

What was I? A emotional crutch for Malcolm? A doll that could sit in the corner and say things for someone else amusement? Just another object? Was that all I was destined to be? I refused. I would just have to get off at the next port. Maybe go back to hunting down the men that had killed Eric. Malcolm would be fine. He made friends quickly and he hadn’t needed me along in the first place. He was just scared.

I was brooding over these questions when the pirates attacked.

They came in the middle of the night, in balloons that swam up from the inky depths of the sky. The watch was cut down and then they swarmed down below decks.

They were all gathered up, the crew, and herded into the hold where I was sitting. We were surrounded by gold toothed grins and rusty swords. A part of me sniffed in derision at the state of them but most of me was concerned for Malcom, who was thrown to the ground from his hammock.

I was unarmed. That amused me a little, an unarmed sword. As the pirates advanced on us, clearly ready to start killing any dissenters I focused. My body was steel. I would be able to get through this.

Then Malcolm thrust himself in front of me.

“Get behind me, Serafina,” he shouted. “I’ll hold them off for as long as I can.”

I stared at the back of his head for a moment, marvelling at the ridiculousness of that statement. Hold them off? He’d barely last a second. A single cut from one of those substandard swords would end him. And yet he was still trying to protect me. Why?

Because, I realised, he valued me more than he valued himself. And he would defend what was important to him.

I finally understood my purpose.

I was a sword.

I drew myself.

It felt wrong, so terribly, terribly wrong. I was a sword and I was a body and being two things at the same time was painful! And yet still I attacked.

The years of practise came to my body, allowing it to move fluidly, to slice. And my sword knew exactly where it was supposed go. I shattered the weak blades before me, casting the pirates back. They swung at me and I dodged, more nimble than Eric had ever been, more direct in my thrusts.

Thirty pirates came down into the hold. Fifteen made it out and I was hot on their heels. But the longer I was drawn the higher rose the pain until I was acting more on instinct than anything else. My senses were beginning to go one by one, and I could feel my life force guttering.

I don’t know how many pirates escaped, scampering into their balloons and away into the night. But it wasn’t many.

And then I collapsed, sinking down into blackness in a mirror of those I’d just driven off.

I came back lying in a hammock. I never slept and so had no cause to lie in one before. It was a very strange sensation and I would probably have remarked more on it but Malcolm’s face swam into view. He was sat on a high stool where he could watch over me, whittling something while he waited. I must have made a sound or movement because he abandoned his work and grabbed my hand.

“Serafina,” he cried. “Are you ok?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. I’ve never known, not really. But right there, with his hand in mine, I thought I was.

No moment could last forever though and after some shouting and running out of sight another face appeared, supported by a magnificent uniform and topped with a ha.. It wasn’t the captain, he hadn’t survived the attack, but it was the first mate, now in command.

“I’m sorry, Serafina,” he said. “We misjudged you. We all thought that you were some project of the wizard’s and….”

He trailed off awkwardly and then held up a sword. It was mine, the one that they’d taken off me.

“You saved us,” he continued. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. I know that we have no right to ask this of you, considering how we discarded you up until now, but I’m asking if you will protect us again. Take up this sword and join this crew properly?”

I was tempted to say no, just to spite him. That I wasn’t just another tool. But everyone needs a purpose. And for the moment, this fitted me very well.

“I will,” I told him, Malcolm’s hand still in mine.

And so that was my job. I helped where needed and, when I wasn’t I walked the deck, practising with my sword, dancing with Malcolm and guarding the future. And usually I did nothing. But not always.

In a perfect world, a sword is very rarely drawn. But it always has the potential to be.

Who am I? I’m still not sure. But for the moment I’m happy going by Serafina.

The Kitten and her Girl

Like all cats I was born knowing that I was special.

I was one, and of course the best, of a litter of seven kittens. For the first few weeks of my life my mother nursed us and told us of our purpose. All cats have a purpose, of course. Only lesser creatures don’t. Some of us are ratters, some are companions. My purpose was of great importance. I was to be a witch’s cat! I would be sent to a witch, who would give me a task to fulfill.

My mother told us about other things, the world in general and our place in it. Cats are beings of balance. We walk the line between the Wild and the humans, we stalk through the shadows of the world, our own masters who chose help humans in matters they can’t navigate.

When I was old enough I left my mother and stepped through the ways secret to cats until I found my witch. By this point I was fully in my power, master of all I surveyed, a full ten weeks old!

It was nearing the end of the day when I arrived at the home of the Witch of the Heartwoods. My mother had heard about her from her witch and knew her to be sensible and of proper import for one such as me. I stepped from the shadows and saw the witch sitting in a rocking chair in front of her house, sipping tea and watching the colour fade from the sky. I roared mightily to let her know I was there and she looked up, a smile bursting across her face.

“Well hello there,” she said, coming across and kneeling in front of me as was proper. “And what is your name?”

I ignored her, washing my face to show what I thought of such impertinence. Everyone knows that a cat’s true name is secret. Then I looked up at her and roared again.

“What a cute meow,” she said and gathered me up. I would have protested but she was very warm and comfy and the journey had tired me somewhat. She took me inside and fed me water and some fish. After that I was given a cushion, upon which I fell asleep.

And so I was a witch’s cat.

It was very boring.

The witch did not often get visitors, living so deep in the woods. Those she did have were barely worth my attention and I often didn’t greet them myself. The house was well appointed, with a lot of plush seats to sleep on, but the trees grew so tall that there were rarely enough sunbeams in which to sprawl. She also had her own way of doing magic and didn’t need my assistance. I was wasted here and I could see the witch agreed, though she fulfilled her side of things with regular offerings of food and strokes.

The day all of this changed and I was given a purpose I was napping in the back room of the witch’s house. I heard the visitors come in and the bustle as my witch supplied them with that tea drink but couldn’t be bothered rousing myself to investigate. I would have probably dozed through their whole visit if the witch hadn’t coming into the back to find me.

“Kitten,” she said respectfully, “I have a task for you. The family out there have a girl who must venture out into the dangerous woods. I want you to go live with them and, when she leaves, go with her and protect her.”

I yawned to show her how I felt about her waking me. “You want me to leave?” I asked.

“Of course not,” the witch replied earnestly. She was at least intelligent enough to understand Cat, even if she couldn’t speak it. “I love having you here. I simply feel that this is a better use of your time. This is a quest worthy of you.”

The idea of a quest did intrigue me and, as I had mentioned, I was getting bored. So I agreed, the witch picked me up and brought me through to the other room.

I saw my new family.

Frankly I wasn’t impressed.

There were three of them, parents and their kit. The parents looked old, whereas the girl was barely in her teen years. She was the one I had to protect and no surprise, being so young and small.

She did have comfortable arms though and she held me close as was proper upon being handed me. I focused on her and missed what the parents were saying to my witch. However I did hear them say, “So when danger appears it’ll grow big and frightening or….?”

The audacity of them! Thankfully my witch set them straight with a smile.

“No, it is what it is. This will keep your daughter safe.”

By this time they must have seen more of my majesty or the sheer obviousness of the statement had finally gotten through to them. Either way they said nothing more, just thanked my witch and took me to my new home.

Much though I felt it demeaning to be in a common store, far beneath my station, I had to admit that it was much comfier than the witch’s hut. The shop and attached house were spacious, with lots of interesting nooks and crannies to investigate. There were many of the much missed sunbeams and they were quick to feed me, though they had to be reminded from time to time.

It was while I was patrolling my new domain that I heard them discussing the problems in the forest. Apparently some wolves and some bandits had moved into the area. It was no wonder that they needed me to protect the girl. Just being around the house must have made them feel safer.

Eventually the day came when the girl needed to make her next delivery. She packed a rucksack, shucked on a green cloak and picked up a basket, which was the perfect place for me to ride in. Then we set off.

The forests have a wild beauty all of their own. The sun dappling through the leaves and the swaying of the basket combined to have an almost soporific effect. It was tempting to fall asleep but I had a duty to protect the girl. Luckily I was a cat and we have the ability to doze while being completely aware of our surroundings.

The day wore on, the girl visiting five different houses of people who didn’t interest me. They looked at me, uncertain and awed by my magnificence, as was only right. Nothing of particular note happened and eventually we started walked back.

Which is when I noticed the wolf.

It was lurking on the side of the path, just a little further on. The girl, with her substandard sight, hearing and sense of smell, was unaware of it. I, of course, could easily defeat it in combat but the girl might get hurt. And unlike properly civilised people she didn’t speak Cat, so I couldn’t warn her. What was I to do?

I was reduced to communicating in the most basic of pantomime. I stood up and stared off the track, away from where the wolf lay in wait. Then, once I was sure I had her attention, I leapt bravely from the basket and led the way to safety.

It seemed that she had gotten the message because I heard her crashing through the undergrowth after me. I had no doubt that the wolf would also be coming after us so I kept up the charge, leading her around unexpected hollows and the worst of hanging branches. This was unsustainable though. Wolves could run faster than her, even if they couldn’t run faster than me, and I had to find a place where it couldn’t get her.

Eventually I both heard and smelt men ahead of me, emphasis on smelt, they were an uncouth bunch but needs must, and led her to them and safety. I decided to let her go first into the clearing where they were making their camp. They would naturally be terrified if I suddenly burst upon them and they were, after all, humans. I dealt with the wild, the girl dealt with the humans.

I knew I had made…well not a mistake, merely a miscalculation, once the girl entered the glade. She reacted to them not in joy, like I’d have expected, but rather in fear. After a few moments I realised that, instead of a gang of smelly but helpful humans, these must have been the bandits that I’d heard of. And they were surrounding the girl.

I was in something of a quandary. Yes, I could just leap into the middle of them and kill them all but there were a lot of them and, again, the girl might get hurt. I was amazing but there was only one of me. There was a chance that a few of the bandits might have enough presence of mind to harm the girl. I needed a large group that would be properly distracting.

I decided to abide by the third law of Cats. If there’s something you don’t particularly want to do, get someone else to do it instead. With that I turned and sped through the forest. Why solve one problem when you can solve two?

It didn’t take me long to find the wolves. I simple had to go back to the path and follow the wolf’s scent back to where they gathered. It was a large pack, several families all gathered together, probably as many as the bandits were. I decided to make an impression upon them. A proper introduction can solve all sorts of problems.

I appeared in front of the pack of wolves like a ghost, unseen but feared, and roared. Heads turned and a large wolf that must have been the alpha stalked over to me.

“What do you want, little morsel?” he growled. “Speak before we snap you up!”

I understand that some leaders need to make themselves feel more important but really. If I hadn’t needed him I would have struck him down on the spot. “I come baring a warning,” I told him. “There are men not far from here that are coming to hunt you. You must attack them first!”

A low chuckle broke from his jaws. “Oh, must we? And why is that?”

“Because if you don’t they will hunt and kill you all! I will do you a favour and lead you to them but you will owe me.”

The chuckles weren’t just coming from the leader now as the pack gathered around. “I think I’ll just eat you,” the wolf said, leaning close to me and showing his fangs.

I inwardly sighed. Why were some animals unable to listen to reason?

Other methods would have to be used.

I extended my claws and swiped the wolf across the snout.

He recoiled with a satisfyingly high-pitched squeal. The rest of the pack lunged at where I used to be but I was already speeding through the trees. Within a moment I heard a hunting howl and they were after me.

A cat like myself will always be faster than some canines, of course, but I will admit that they were faster than I expected. I had to let them keep me in sight, of course, but they were getting a little closer than I’d planned. We were only halfway to the camp and the howls were uncomfortably close.

It was a surprise when we almost crashed into the bandits. I managed to vanish into the undergrowth just in time but the wolves weren’t as cunning. Both group stopped and stared at each other for a moment.

What were they doing here? Then I saw the girl leading them and realised that she must have somehow figured out my plan. Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all.

The wolves snapped out of their confusion first and attacked. Several bandits fell before the rest got their act together and counter attacked. I saw the girl stumble off to the side and vanish as the fight got under way. Just like I’d planned.

I stayed to watch the confrontation play out, hidden safely under a bush. Both group struck at each other with ferocity doubtless born of their inner limitations. While the wolves had gotten first blood the bandits were armed with swords and axes and these fake claws counted for a lot. The fight ground on, more falling on both sides every moment. Eventually the tattered remains of both groups limped away, neither a threat to anyone any longer. Just as I’d planned.

I headed back to the path and waited for the girl there. The day was nice and warm and I was tired after completing my quest in such a final way. So I found a nice sunbeam, curled up and waited for the girl.

Saving the day must have taken more out of me than I had thought because the first that I was aware of the girl’s return was when she picked me up and, holding me close, began to walk back home. The basket had vanished at some point but being carried like this was a nice substitute. I curled up deeper into her arms and purred to let her know that I was satisfied.

The girl held me tight and whispered in my ear, “You may not have done anything to help but I love you anyway.”

It’s not her fault. She’s only human.

The Boy Who Angered the Storm

There once was a village out on the plains. It was small, as these things go, filled with farmers, an inn and a blacksmith. The residents mostly stayed there for their whole lives, with few leaving and fewer outsiders arriving. Spread around it was the farms and around those vast expanses of grass ran to a horizon that seemed so far away. The village had no name and only one road, that wound from one side of the world to the other and cut through the village like a sword thrust.

This is a story about a little boy who lived just outside the village in his parents farm. Like most of the inhabitants of the village there was nothing special about him, no in-built destiny. He looked the same as those around him, hair within the variances of brown, eyes a blue like his parents, skin a healthy tan. He wasn’t stronger than other boys his age, he wasn’t smarter. There was only one thing that set him apart and that was his curiosity.

There was one way the village differed from others. In a tower on top of a nearby hill The Storm King lived. He was rarely seen, preferring to keep to himself within. The villagers would make deliveries of their crops to the tower and do their best to keep him happy. Because when he flew into a rage, and anything could set him off, the wind began to blow and storm clouds blotted the sky. Thunder would roll and lightning would flash.

The boy was fascinated with the King and would often sneak away to his tower to spy on him. Whenever his parents found out they would tell him off, warning him to stay away. “Don’t make the Storm King angry with you,” they told him. “Some storms cannot be weathered.” Then they’d put him to work, weeding their muskmelon patch or feeding the goats. But he wouldn’t listen and at the next opportunity he would go again.

Familiarity builds contempt and, though they would scold him every time he came back, the boy’s parents began to get more relaxed. “He’s not doing anything wrong,” they would tell each other. “If the Storm King was going to get angry, surely he would have already?” Though they wouldn’t tell him it had begun to be a point of pride to them. “Look at our son. See how brave he is!”

So the day that the boy angered the Storm King caught them by surprise. They ignored the warning signs, of the clouds slowly gathering over the distant needle of the tower, of the sunlight beginning to fade. They continued their work, taking care of their crops and pegging up the laundry on the lawn where the goats grazed. Even if they had noticed they had no reason to suspect it was because of their son.

Until the boy came sprinting out of their neighbour’s field of maize, his footfalls echoing with the roar of the thunder. By this time the sky was black as pitch and they’d had to hurriedly take in the washing and house the goats in the outhouse. The boy ran up to them and into the house, slamming the door behind him. They looked at his panicked face and knew at once that he was to blame. “What did you do?” they asked him. But the boy wouldn’t answer.

For the rest of the day and late into the night the storm raged. The villagers all cowered in fear in their homes, wondering what had set the Storm King off. Only the boy knew and no matter how often his parents asked him he wouldn’t tell. Finally dawn’s light broke through the cloud as the storm blew itself out. The villagers all breathed a sigh of relief and got back to their lives. They’d lived through the storms before and would do so again.

But this time was different.

The boy stayed inside for the next two days and his parents let him. It wasn’t wise to go outside after angering the King and so they made him clean their house from top to bottom, sweep out all the dust the storm had blown inside and fix the holes the wind had howled through. On the third day they sent him into town to trade their goat’s milk for some eggs.

As soon as he stepped outside there was a change in the air, a sharpening and a tension as if someone had suddenly started paying attention. He was halfway to the village before the rainclouds covered the sun and he had to run back, the milk sloshing in his bucket. His parents gathered him and the goats into the home and locked it up tight.

This storm was less ferocious than the previous one. The rain sheeted down but the lightning only occasionally flashed, the thunder wandering among the hills and plains, booming from here and there. As if it were searching for something.

His parents tried to laugh it off as a coincidence. People had annoyed the Storm King before but, though his vengeance was swift, it was usually brief. You weathered the storm and that was an end of it. The Storm King didn’t hold a grudge.

But this time was different.

Just in case they kept the boy inside for a week. He want sent down into the cellar, where he sorted through the old sacks of half rotten vegetables and the broken remembrances of days past. By the end of the week his back was sore from spending so long bent over and cobwebs netted his hair. But the cellar was sparkling clean and his parents felt it was safe for him to go outside again.

The boy was handed a shovel and sent to muck out the goats, a task that took him an hour. Then he washed in the water butt, cleansing himself of the dust of the past week, before going to help with the weeding. He made no loud noises, nor strayed far from the house. And still it was just past midday that the clouds came rolling in again.

Once again the family dashed to the house and once again the storm was mild, as such things went. But this time the booms of thunder were nearer and the lightning flashed between the shutters. The boy quaked with every peal but otherwise remained silent. His parents looked at him, concerned. It was getting harder to tell themselves that the Storm King wasn’t looking for their son.

“What did you do to upset the Storm King so?” they asked but still the boy wouldn’t tell them.

His parents feared what would happen when the King found their son. This time, they decided, the boy needed to stay inside for a month. After all, the Storm King would have forgotten whatever he did by then.

A month inside is tough on a boy of any age or disposition. This boy, who was used to running through fields with his friends and working long hours beside his parents, was especially despondent. His parents put him in charge of all house chores, cooking, cleaning, mending, fixing, and, while that helped, his endless horizons had still been replaced by four close walls. His legs grew weaker, his skin grew paler and his eyes grew accustomed to candles or sunlight through glass.

Eventually though the month past and he was allowed outside. Now he would be safe. Never before had the Storm King been angry a month, a week and three days after.

But this time it was different.

And the stormclouds began forming within an hour.

The parents looked at each other. What could they do? Their son couldn’t live in the house forever, never going outside. They had tried running from the problem. Now they had to face it.

They gathered the goats inside, because hope is never a replacement to caution. Then, baring the door so the boy couldn’t slip inside, the family waited as the storm approached. Closer and closer it crept, the air hazing from golden yellow to purple. Finally it was upon them.

Lightning flashed overhead, thunder cracked.

The Storm King came.

The clouds above, black as a bruise, black as broken love, started circling around the hill the house was built on. The sky briefly appeared above them, light blue and unreachable, before the clouds slammed together and down with a clap. They impacted the hill before the family and within it a shape formed.

The Storm King was of nature and such things are impossible to properly describe. Yes, he was tall but it was the vastness of a cloud in the sky. His beard was bushy and Cumulonimbus. His eyes were St Elmos fire, his mouth a crack of tempestuousness, his voice a gale. His anger was static, sparks of it jumping around him. His attention, when it settled on the family, was landfall.

“You.”

Was it the being before them speaking or was it the very air around them? There was no way of telling. The boy quaked but didn’t falter. Instead he took a deep breath, the fury in the air filling his lungs, and stepped forward.

“Me,” he said, small, quiet but dauntless.

“You broke into my house. You took what wasn’t yours.”

His parents fall back in shock. “You stole from the Storm King?” They asked the boy. He looked at them and nodded.

“It was mine,” the Storm King raged. “Mine. I made it, I owned it. You stole it.”

“You made her, but you weren’t worthy of her,” the boy replied. “So I took her back.”

Another crack of thunder lit the air. The Storm King towered over them, then bent down and glared at the boy. “Return it to me! Now!”

“I can’t,” the boy said. “I gave her away and now she’s where you’ll never find her.”

The clouds, that had been circling the hill like sharks, stopped for one, heavy moment. The Storm King’s eyes narrowed.

“Then suffer in its place.”

Then the man was gone. But the storm, and the rage, remained.

The family barely made it into the house before the first flash and boom filled the air. The goats huddled in a corner, some climbing onto the beds, and has to be wrestled down into the cellar. Because there was no question that they needed into the cellar, the house was shaking and the storm had only just begun. Finally they got the last nanny in there and shut the trapdoor.

Thunder rolled like a drum, lightning was as constant as candlelight. The hill shook, struck by forces rarely unleashed. Night, turned into day, turned into night, indistinguishable from each other and their passing was only noted by the oil lamps being refilled and the feeding of the goats.

There was no natural reason for this. They all knew what this was. Rage, fury, vast and untapped, vented upon them.

But even the anger of the storm is not endless. Eventually the constant barrage of flash and thunder slowed and stopped. The howling wind blew the storm heads to bits and rays of sun finally poked through.

They crept up from below, followed by the goats. The house was a wreck. The windows had been blown in, glass and shutters vanished to never be seen again. The door could be found sunk into the table, the two joined like lovers. The chimney was a tumble of fallen stone. But outside the sun beckoned.

The boy took a trembling step outside into the light, the smell of renewal thick in the air. The onslaught of the storm had changed him and his hair had turned a thick, shining silver. His parents stood with him and together they looked at their farm.

The storm had wrought changes. The lawn, once kept neat by the goats, was wild and knee high. The muskmelons had swollen to huge sizes. The shed and outbuildings were gone, as was the clothes and the line. In places the ground had been rent down to the bedrock, generations of soil stripped away. A trickling stream that hadn’t existed before bubbled quietly past the base of the hill.

“Well?” his parents asked him. “This is what happens when you steal from the Storm King. Was it worth it?”

The boy looked around, a ringing in his ears that would never go away. Finally, he replied. “Yes.”

The Girl with the Beaten Bronze Hair

Trigger Warning: There’s some upsetting scenes with an animal in pain and some gore.

There was once a couple who wanted a baby very much. They lived together in a village nestled deep within the Greatwoods, he as a blacksmith and she as a weaver. Theirs was a happy home, full of laughter and colour and, in their mind, the only thing that could make it better was to have a child of their own. They were both healthy and were sure that their union would be blessed before much time had passed.

But as the years went on, they got older and yet no child appeared. They began to despair.

Around this time in the Heartwood where the trees grew close together there lived a witch. Witches weren’t allowed in the village, for they were said to have fae and uncanny powers. Never make a deal with a witch, the saying went, for you never truly know what they will take in return. But the hurt and sick of the village, those who were able, would creep out there anyway. And the blacksmith and his wife were desperate. So off they went.

The witch was not the old bitter crone they were expecting but younger than them, with skin brown as the bark of the trees and glossy black hair. She greeted them cheerily and hustled them into the house where she lived. In short order they were seated across from her, holding cups of tea they feared to drink. “How can I help?” she asked.

“We want to have a child but can’t have one,” they told her. She thought about it for a spell then started rummaging around on her shelves while encouraging them to drink their tea. Eventually she pulled out a bottle that gleamed like the sun.

“Drink a spoonful of this three times a day, at dawn, noon and sunset,” she told them. “It should help. But be aware, there are side effects.”

“What are they?” asked the blacksmith, though he had to keep his hands clenched together to stop from grabbing for the small vial.

“Making life is powerful magic,” the witch replied. “There’s a good chance that the child will be special and have powers.”

This was a problem but not an insurmountable one. Children with strange powers were rare but not unheard of. There was a couple in the village with a boy whose eyes were blood red. He had the ability to find flowers even in the depths of winter. But still they didn’t take the potion. There was one final question that had to be asked.

“What’s the price?” the weaver asked.

The witch smiled sadly. “The same as with any child. You love them no matter what or you lose them.”

They didn’t believe her but their need for a child was greater than their distrust. So they took the bottle and left the witch and their mugs of tea, still undrunk, behind them.

That evening, as the sun was dipping below the horizon, the weaver went to her husband as he was pouring out the potion into a spoon. The glow of the potion threw light up at his face, revealing crags and shadows that should not have been there. He saw her standing there and confessed.

“I’m scared,” the blacksmith told his wife, handing her the spoon. “What if it’s like the witch said? What if our baby is different?”

The weaver looked him straight in his eyes and swallowed the measure whole. The glow travelled down her throat and disappeared. “Then like she said, we will love it, no matter what.”

And so, in time, a young girl was eventually born to them. From the start it was obvious that this girl was different. Physically she was normal but she was already born with a thick head of hair, a most beautiful bronze colour, not the black of the weaver or the brown of the blacksmith. The couple fell in love with her immediately. They agreed not to tell her about the witch, as that would just confuse her they felt. Instead they kept a close watch on her to see what she would become and named her Eos, for the dawn when she’d been born.

But despite their fears Eos grew up normal. She cried as a baby. She tottered along, fell and got back up again as a toddler. By the time she was ten her parents had almost forgotten about the witch’s warning. To them Eos was the perfect daughter, strong with clear skin, bright brown eyes and long hair that had never been cut.

Well, almost perfect.

The weaver desired nothing more than to pass her craft onto her daughter, like her mother had before her. She wanted to sit with her, the shuttlecock of the loom rattling backward and forwards before them while colour flowed through their hands. But Eos didn’t care for sitting and working. She would run off to the woods with her friends, climbing trees and fording streams. The only time that she could be persuaded to sit still was at night, when her mother would tell her stories, of knights and warriors, of chivalry and honour, of fighting against all odds and defeating the evil. Then her eyes would grow round as saucers, their light blue shining from under her glistening fringe. But such stillness was always temporary and when the next day dawned she would again escape to the green of the trees, fighting the imaginary dragons that lived there.

The only other place that held her interest was in her father’s forge. The warmth, the crashing of hammer on anvil, the sparks that danced like fairies in the light from the furnace, the sound of metal on metal that she imagined to be like the sound of a knights’ duel. It drew her in and whenever she had the chance she snuck off to stare in amazement at her father at work. He often let her be, happy to spend time with her and occasionally mesmerised at the way the light would play off her bronze hair.

One day, while he was making a knife for a woodcutter in the village, Eos crept in unseen. Attracted by the glowing shape she leaned over the anvil then tripped and almost fell face first onto it. Luckily her father managed to see and grab her just in time but the damage was done. Her fringe brushed forward.

The hair fell on the hot metal and immediately a change came about the as yet unborn blade. Light shimmered on it and an even greater heat arose. The blacksmith, after depositing her daughter safely on the ground stared at it in amazement. Then he called his wife to take Eos and set to work.

Long into the night the crash of hammer and metal could be heard from his hut. Eos fussed at being kept away but eventually went to bed. Finally, he emerged. The metal had proved easier to work and when he showed the knife to his wife it flickered as if fire had been caught within it.

“This must be the power the witch talked about,” he whispered. She reluctantly agreed.

Clearly Eos had a calling for metal and so on that day her father took her as his apprentice. Her hair was bound tightly back in a braid, the singed fringe cut short. She was bright and eager, ready to work beside her father. She was less eager when he told her to start shovelling coal. For the next year she was given hard and backbreaking work to do, from tending to the furnace to hauling the items her father had finished to their new owners. Gradually though, the blacksmith started to show her how to do things, how to properly melt the metal, how to shape it. How to take the riches of the earth and create. Eos loved it and dedicated all her time to it. By the time she was in her early teens she was as good a blacksmith as her father, though she preferred to work with bronze to his iron. Though usually bronze would be weaker she added small bits of her hair to it, giving it greater strength and unusual properties. Her creations would always be hot, summer life flowing through them. He would caution her against it. “Eos,” he would say. “You’ve been given a great gift but you must be carefully. Use it sparingly or others will hear about it and start demanding things from you.” But she wouldn’t listen, taking joy in making things that only she could make.

Finally what her father feared came to pass. A message came from a dutchy by the sea, addressed to her father. They had heard of her powers and thought them his. With the message came a crate of cloths and silks and a request to make a large metal bucket, to heat water past boiling point.

The Blacksmith wanted to refuse, but Eos laughed. “It’s just a bucket, what harm could it do?” she asked. And she set to work.

It took her a week to make the bucket and she poured her heart and talent into it. By the end it stood up to a grown man’s knee, as wide across as an arm. The edges of the rim were etched into pressed seashells and waves encircled the base. The handles were of carved red heartwood and the inside shimmered constantly with heat. On the base Eos put her mark, a rising sun, so everyone would know that it was her who made it. The messenger took it, thanked the Blacksmith for his work, and left delighted.

But though it was beautiful still Eos felt disappointed. Is this the limit to what I can make? she asked herself. At the end of the day it’s still a just a bucket.

A few months passed when the second messenger appeared. From the frozen north he came, with reindeer horns and skins, asking for a knife that could slay winter. Once again he came to her father and once again he wanted to refuse. But Eos was caught by the idea. Here at least was her stories come to life, surely?

For a fortnight she slaved away at the forge. By the end the knife lay shining on the reindeer skin she’d spread under it. The sheath was wood, padded on the inside with some of her mothers weavings. The hilt was iron with the rising sun worked into the design, cool to the touch and the blade was of a leaf, the veins taking the place of the fuller, shining with the power of summer and her hair. The messenger thanked her father profusely, and left with it, to return to the north.

But though it was deadly, Eos was still disappointed. It’s a powerful blade, she thought to herself, but it’s still just a knife.

What she wanted more than anything was to make a sword. A magic sword, just like the ones in her favourite stories, one none could stand against.

Which was when the third messenger arrived.

This one wasn’t from some far away place. Instead it was from the local duke, the one who owned the lands. He had heard of the blacksmith’s work as well. His messenger was clothed in red and green and announced by a quartet of trumpets. They brought with them a chest full of gold and a request for the blacksmith to come to his castle and make for him a glorious sword. Eos was delighted.

But though this was what she finally wanted to work on, her parents put their foot down. They sent the messengers away with a refusal and then sat Eos down.

“A sword isn’t like a bucket or a knife,” her father told her. “Those are tools that can be used for many things. This is a weapon. It’s only purpose is to hurt people. We can’t allow you to make it.”

Eos fumed at them and stalked off to the forge. After all she didn’t need to have an order to make a sword. She could make one herself.

For the next three days she locked herself inside the smithy and worked day and night. She started on the hilt, carving it out of reindeer horn while she thought up the design for the blade itself. Finally, as she was wrapping it in some of the cloth from the sea it came upon her. And she would have started on it straight away if she had not been interrupted by the fourth request.

Unlike the previous messages this one was not brought by a human but by a raven who winged through an open window bearing a tightly furled scroll in its beak and a pouch in its feet. Eos blinked at such a surprising sight and unrolled the scroll to find a request like no other. A wizard from the west, requesting that she make, of all things, a bronze heart.

Eos stared at it for a while, surprised but intrigued. She still wanted to make the sword, yes, but this…this would be a challenge unlike any other. She felt it calling out to her from the paper and she decided that she would take on this request.

Then, the passion of creation having left her, she collapsed on the spot. It is not wise to stay up for three nights and it will take its toll.

She woke up, in her bed, her father having found her and carried her there the night before. The afternoon sunlight shone from the window and, as she sat up, she could see that a plate of bread and cheese had been left out for her. She sat down, cut herself a wedge and started to think about the new project.

The first problem, as she saw it was that, unlike a knife, bucket or sword, she was not familiar with a heart. She didn’t know how they worked or what they looked like when they did.

So she finished her late breakfast and went to find Vlasis.

Vlasis was one of her friends with whom she’d gone adventuring into the forest. But while she had given that up for the forge he had stayed in the trees, learning the ways of the animals that lived there and hunting them. If she wanted to see a heart then he was the place to go.

Vlasis was sitting outside his smoking hut, eating an apple, his face shaded by the wide brim of his hat. He could usually be found around the village, helping to repair houses or replace roofs. But he’d recently caught something in his traps so he had to preserve the meat. He looked up at Eos when she arrived and grinned at her.

“Eos! I haven’t seen you in ages! Have you come for some meat?”

She returned the smile. He looked good, his long limbs stretching out at odd angles but looking comfortable none the less. “Sort of,” she replied and then explained. “I need to see a heart.”

“I’ve got one inside,” he said, raising to his feet and throwing away the apple core. “Come and see.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she said. “I need to see a beating heart.” And she explained about her task.

“I usually try and kill the animal as soon as possible, so it doesn’t suffer. None of my traps would work for this.” He scratched his head and thought for a bit. “I’ve got to keep an eye on this meat while it smokes anyway. Come back in a few days and I’ll have thought of something.”

She thanked him and left, drifting back to the forge. With nothing else to do she started work on the blade of the sword. The design was still in her head and, through heating, beating and folding, she crystalised it into the metal in front of her, adding her hair in large quantities. It shone once she was done, five days later, and needed only to be fixed to the hilt to be complete.

But first she needed to finish the heart.

Vlasis was waiting for her when she returned, a pair of shovels leaning against the wall next to a backpack. “Eos! I was just coming to find you! I’ve worked out the details of the trap we’ll need. You just have to help me set it up.”

He tossed her the backpack and a shovel, both of which were quite heavy, and after he grabbed the second one they set out.

Deep into the woods they went, where humans seldom ventured. At first the two of them chatted happily away but as the trees grew close together their voices dwindled until they walked in silence.  Finally Vlasis held up a hand, signalling that they should stop. “My traps are near here,” he told Eos seriously. “Be very careful where you put your feet.”

They crept carefully forward, step by careful step. Whenever they got near to a trap Vlasis would point it out and describe how it worked, though the description would usually end with ‘and then they get impaled with a wooden stake.’ Eos took careful note of their positions and made sure her steps were extra delicate.

Then the trees opened up into a large meadow. The grass was short and sprinkled with the scattered jewels of flowers. A stream ran through a corner of it. Vlasis walked over to a patch a little beyond the treeline, looked around then nodded to himself.

“We’re going to dig a pit and try and catch a deer,” he told her. “It’s going to have to be deep so that it can’t get out, which is why you’re here. I need some strong arms.”

“Well I’ve got those,” Eos flexed her biceps to prove it and Vlasis laughed.

“More than me anyway.”

He took out a knife that Eos recognised as one she had made years ago, and cut out the turf, tearing away strips of it until he’d exposed a large patch of earth. Pacing out a square not quite as big as the space he indicated to Eos and they started digging.

And digging.

And digging.

And hauling the dirt away into the forest, scattering it around so it wasn’t obvious.

And digging.

The sun was low in the sky and Eos had been digging on her own for an hour by the time Vlasis said it was deep enough. She hauled herself out, needing a hand to do so for it was already past her shoulders, and turned to see what the hunter had been doing. He’d taken the strips of turf and laid them over a delicate framework of twigs. She helped him lay it over the pit, perfectly disguising it.  

“So the deer will step on it…”

“…and fall in, I get it. I’m not a mighty hunter like you but I understand how it works.”

He grinned at her again then got a torch out of the backpack. “Do you remember where the traps are?”

She nodded as he lit the torch, smoke billowing out of it. “Good. Then you can lead the way while I take care of our scent trail.”

Walking back was much different. Eos couldn’t take her eyes of the ground, afraid at every step that the traps would spring into action, that spears would rush from the trees and stab into her. But they made it through, Vlasis waving the torch around, and safely got out.

Only to return in two days. Once again they stepped carefully around the traps and came out into the meadow. The pit gaped before them, triggered by something. They stalked carefully over and looked into the hole. A deer looked back fearfully.

“So what do you need me to do?” Vlasis asked.

“I need you to cut it open and then hold it still so I can see it’s heart beating.”

The man looked surprised. “While it’s still alive? That isn’t going to be pleasant.”

But he got into the pit anyway. He looked up at his friend one last time, then pulled out his that she’d made knife and cut.

Eos hadn’t known that deer could scream.

The noise was unearthly. Blood sprayed into the air as Vlasis dropped his weapon and grappled with the animal, positioning it until Eos could see into the caping wound where part of the creature had used to be. The deer cried out again and Eos almost threw up. But she forced herself to lean closer and to look at the heart, pumping away behind it’s cage of bone. In and out. In and out. Glistening Finally she nodded. “I’ve got all I…”

She couldn’t even finish the sentence before her knife was in Vlasis’ hand. Gliding gently across the deer’s neck, the red pouring out, the deer’s struggles growing weaker before finally stopped, the heart stilled. The hunter looked down at his prey, a dark look on his face.

“Never ask me to do something like that again. That was…that was evil.”

Eos couldn’t find it in her to disagree. Whatever the heart was going to be used for, she hoped it was worth it.

Meanwhile, back at the village, the blacksmith opened the door to a knock. Outside stood a messenger of the duke, the same as before, once again bringing a message. This time though he didn’t bring gifts, only sharp words, demanding that the blacksmith come to work for the duke at once. The blacksmith once again declined and the messenger left, but this time with a warning.

“The duke is not a man you want to displease. It would be better for you, for all of you, if you were to come to his castle.”

The blacksmith thanked the man and closed the door. He exchanged looks with the weaver, who had heard it all. They knew that they’d have to talk to Eos about this.

But when the door next opened and admitted Eos he found he couldn’t. She was covered in blood and her eyes were shocked and distant. As the weaver fussed around her and the blacksmith started heating buckets of water for a bath he decided not to tell her. After all, what was a blacksmith to a duke? A bare passing thought, most likely.

That night Eos lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling, the screams of the deer still echoing in her head. More than anything she wanted to forget the day, pretend that it had never happened.

But she had seen a heart beating and her mind worked through that, how she could replicate it. A pump, that’s all it was. But a pump for life.

Eos took the knowledge into the forge and created. It took all her skill and no small amount of her magic, making the bronze thin enough it could expand and contact while not so thin that it would break. She saw the finished product in her mind and brought it forth, an act of pure creation. Finally it was done, to the specifications the wizard asked for. It lay shining in her hands, just waiting to start work.

She gave it to the raven, who had spent the past month hanging around the village, and then turned back to her sword. It was sitting there, just waiting to be assembled, the bronze gleaming with power, the hilt sure in the hand, the scabbard already assembled. She imagined holding it, the strength it held.

The blood it would bring.

And she knew that she couldn’t do it. She could not let this sword out into the world. How could she know that it would be used for good, to fight monsters, and not to hurt the innocent?

She thought that she’d be more ashamed but at its heart creation is about discovery and she had just discovered an edge to her, a limitation. It was uncomfortable, as all such truths are, but freeing, to get to know herself more. At that moment she knew exactly what to do.

She finished assembling the sword, as there wasn’t much left to do and it wasn’t her way to leave a task half finished, and slid it into the scabbard. Then she went again into the woods.

Past the traps she got to the meadow. Where there had been a hole before now there was just a patch of bare soil, where they’d filled in the pit, so that it couldn’t hurt anything again. With her hands she dug down, creating a shallow impression that she slung the sword into before covering it. Let the soul of the deer sleep with the treasure.

No more violence, no more swords, she thought to herself as she left, the sun low in the sky.

But when she returned the village was full of men with swords and violence.

Twenty they were, dressed in the duke’s colours and there was the duke himself, directing them as they pulled people from their homes and beat them towards a cage in the middle of the village square. Nobody resisted, or at least not for long, and then there was her father, thrown to his knees before the duke. Eos hovered there, on the very edge of the village, not sure whether to help or to flee. But she hesitated too long and the decision was made for her.

“That’s the blackmith’s apprentice,” one of them cried. “Get her!”

Five of the men sprinted towards her and she turn and ran. The duke watched her go then turned back to her father, already forgetting about her.

And what was a little girl to a duke?

Eos had grown up running through these woods and the men wore armour besides, so she should have lost them easily. But shock is a wound all of its own and she couldn’t get the images out of her head, of her village, captive. Abused.

Anger rose in her. How dare they? How dare they hurt innocent people?

She was the only one free. She had to save them. She had to be a hero.

She changed direction. First though she had to deal with the ones on her tail.

Man is, after all, an animal like any other and traps that worked on deer and boar work as well on them.

The screams echoing in her ears she reached the site of the pitfall. With her hands she started scraping away the loose soil that she’d put there just a few hours before. Finally, weapon in hand she turned to where the soldiers still writhed, impaled on the spears.

A moment later the screams cut off.

Sword in hand, night in the sky, she returned to the village.

Fifteen still remained but the village was spread out and half of them were asleep, confident in the strength of their cage and their right to be there. Eos crept through her home, blade bright and awake in her hands, slipping into the inn, that the soldiers had taken for their own. She found them splayed out on tables, stinking of stolen ale. And sword in hand, she made sure that they never awoke.

She had to move fast now, blood had been spilled and it wouldn’t take long before her presence was noticed. She slunk out the back door, towards the forge. The guard at the door saw her at the last minute and gave a cry but she was already swinging towards him. It was a sloppy cut, amateur and hit the thickest part of his armour but what did that matter when it cut through so easily? He was gasping his last as she stepped over him and inside.

In her smithy she found her father, bound with iron to his anvil, the forge smouldering behind him. His face was broken, beaten when he refused to help. The inside of Eos went cold at the sight and she no longer mourned for those she had killed. The blade cut through the chains and her father fell away from his anvil. “I’m going to go end this,” she told him.

“Eos, wait…” he said, stretching his hand out for her but a horn blared, cutting him off. She sprang to her feet and was gone, leaving him lying behind her.

Five men remained, four men at arms and the duke, gathered in front of the cage. They drew up at her approach but that banked fire roared inside her. The sword glowed in her hands and her hair answered, wreathing her in flame. Summer had arrived, not the gentle ones of childhood but hot, merciless, full of drought and famine. The men took one look at her as she advanced, vengeance in her footsteps, then they threw down their weapons and ran.

Only the duke stayed, his blade of steel outstretched towards her. Arrogantly, he tossed his head.

“That sword is mine,” he said. “Give it to me and your people can go free.”

He was answered with bronze and a cutting pain where his fingers had grasped the hilt. They fell away and he stared at their absence for a moment before his knees gave out. He hit the ground, clutching his bloody hand to his chest. He looked up at her, and saw his doom before him, surrounded in the dark blue of early morning. He swallowed his fear and tried to beg.

“Please don’t kill me. I’ll go, I’ll never come back….”

But heroes don’t spare monsters.

The sun rose and with it went the sword, blaze to blade, dawn to doom. The duke tried one last time but his words stuttered on his lips as she swept down, spearing him through the heart. He died instantly, one minute man, the next meat.

Eos dispassionately pulled her sword from the heap in front of her and turned to the cage. Her sword cut once and the lock was instantly severed. She wiped it clean and sheathed it before turning to look at her village, her friends, her family.

They were all staring at her. Finally one among them spoke.

“What have you done?”

With a frown on her face she answered, “I saved you.”

“By murder?!”

“He was a monster, he was evil,” she tried to say but people were talking over her, not wanting to listen to what she had to say. The words started coming thick and fast, the people she knew, her village, morphing into one mass. No longer people, just a collection of harsh words and sibilant whispers.

“He was begging for his life.”

“She just killed him.”

“Did she say she killed them all? She’s a murderer.”

“It’s her fault that we were all stuck here in the first place…”

She expected cheers. She expected gratitude.

What she got was dread, shock and despair.

Someone spat at her and she looked towards her mother but even there all she saw was horror in the eyes of the weaver. Before she could say anything else the first stone was thrown and she turned and ran.

And so did the witch’s warning come to pass.

Through the wood she ran, away from the village that was once hers and to which she could never return. Tears hazed her vision and as night fell she collapsed by a river, the sword falling beside her. Greedily she cupped the water in her hands and drank. Then she caught sight of her reflection and wept anew.

For in the water she saw that her hair no longer shone. In the wake of the slaughter it was rusted the colour of blood.

This is the fourth in the series of Fairy Tales. The first one The Ice Maiden can be found here.

The Man and the Sword

There once was a swordsman that loved battle.

From a young age, when he’d been squired to a great knight, he’d always loved to fight. The thrill of besting others, the joy of swinging his sword. Though he was apprenticed to a knightly order he didn’t take vows in the end. Not for him the humility of protection, of serving. He longed only to travel the land, finding others to beat, fighting for whoever would pay him. And so he did.

Fair he was, with flowing golden locks that cascaded down his back like a cloak. His eyes were a piercing blue and his cheeks were smooth as a maidens, no weapon having cut them. But though his looks were unsullied by pain his hands told a different story, with calluses built up from the many duels and fights he had been in, small nicks and imperfections telling a more interesting story than his bland, perfect face. To look at his red lips was to see a man like any other, handsome but still usual. To look at his grip around the hilt of his sword was to see a master.

It was this sword that was his true love. A gift from his old master it was long and shone in the sun when he swung it. The hilt was wrapped leather, worn soft in his hands. He clasped it in his arms when asleep by campfires and in tents and at all other times it hung on his waist. It was the first thing he checked on in the morning and he last thing his sleepy fingers found at night. His highest calling was its care and every day he oiled it, sharpened it and checked it for rust. And in return it never failed him. It swept light and easy in his hand, it cut through armour and the people beneath it. They were a partnership, one being in the moment of combat.

The man knew it as well. Whenever someone praised him on a spectacular win in a duel or cursed him with blood bubbling on their lips his reply was always the same. The same thing he whispered to the weapon every time he won. “Thank the sword.”

And yet, when one day the sword replied to him, he was surprised.

He had been ambushed by five men when walking the border between two kingdoms and surrounded by five corpses he wiped the last of the blood off his blade. “Thank you,” he said before sheathing it.

You’re welcome came the reply, then the hilt hit the scabbard.

The swordsman stopped and looked around, wondering if someone was playing a trick or if he had imagined it. But the words didn’t come again and he was not an imaginative man. Shaking his head he walked on.

The next time the sword spoke to him was after his next fight, in an arena surrounded by baying spectators, on blood soaked sand. He had just disarmed his opponent and was walking back to his corner. “Thank you,” he said to the sword as he slid it away.

You’re welcome.

The voice in his mind was a whisper in the wind, barely heard above the cheers and cries. He looked round briefly then discarded the thought. There was so much noise you could hear whatever you wanted in it.

The third time, however, was in the dead of night. An assassin, a dismissal from a noble that was disappointed there were some problems that a good sword hand couldn’t fix, came upon him as he was sleeping. He was barely able to snatch up the sword when the woman was upon him, blade flashing in the night. Even upon his back though the man was fast and soon his assailant was dead, a snarl forever etched upon her face. Shaking, the swordsman looked at his blade, stained with the reality that he’d survived yet again. “Thank you,” he said sincerely.

You’re welcome the sword replied and this time there could be no doubt that the words had come from the weapon.

Many would panic at this, some would question it. The man just accepted it. He talked to his sword, why shouldn’t it talk back? He continued on as he had been, finding fights and thanking his sword afterwards. And always the reply You’re welcome would come. Occasionally he would joke to others that he had the politest weapon in the realm.

But though outwardly nothing changed the connection between the man and the sword got stronger. He began to sense her when doing drills and practising moves, an awareness observing what he was doing and his surroundings. And eventually the sword began to say other things.

Behind you came in the middle of a fight and the swordsman was able to turn and deflect an attack coming at his back. Thrust it suggested to win a duel. His grip is weak and the opponent’s sword went flying.

And by the day the sword asked a question it wasn’t a surprise.

By this time the sword’s voice had become familiar, a woman’s voice, high and clear like a bell. It rang inside his head as he worked at his morning drills.

Why do you fight?

“I like to win,” he replied.

Why?

“I like the way it makes me feel. It proves that I’m stronger, faster, better than everyone else.” He grinned. “That I have the better sword.”

That seemed to satisfy the sword for she spoke no more that day. But the next time he drew her she asked more questions, about his form and the way that he swung her. Then the next and the next. The questions continued and began to gradually change, from fighting and winning, to about the world around them, to the swordsman himself. He always answered honestly and the questions began to change him. Did he need to have killed that person, when he could have spared them? Was this really what he wanted for the rest of his life? But no matter what he did or where he went, she was right there beside him, asking questions and making him laugh with her comments.

He began to love her, not only as a weapon but as a person. And she loved him back.

“Would that you were a woman,” the swordsman said to her as they lay beside each other one night. “Then we could truly be together.”

Are we not together now? asked the sword.

“Your edges are sharp and can cut me.”

I’m a sword. That’s what we do.

“But wouldn’t it be good to not be like that? If you were a woman I could hold you.”

You hold me now.

“Not in that way.”

There was silence for a moment. It might be nice to be a woman, the sword said at last. But then you wouldn’t have a sword.

“I’d have you. And that would be more than enough.”

And no more was said that night.

There lived in the west at that time a wizard who was said to be able to do many miraculous things. He lived in a lighthouse on a hill, surrounded by forest. The swordman heard of him and went to ask if he could build a body for his sword. The wizard listened, running a hand through his thinning brown hair. Eventually he admitted that it was possible.

“But this will not come cheaply,” the wizard told them.

“I will pay whatever price is necessary,” the swordsman said. “I have money, in gold and precious stones. Whatever you need, I will acquire it.”

“It’s not you who will pay, for it’s not you who has to change. I have to ask your sword. Please pass her to me.”

Slowly the swordman unbuckled his scabbard and handed it over. The wizard drew and addressed the blade.

“Are you sure you want me to make you a body, a different form to this one?”

I want my wielder to be happy, the sword replied. This is what he wants.

The wizard sighed, because that was not what he had asked but he had gotten his answer anyway.

“Very well, I will try making you a body. But you must understand, this is no small thing. It will take more than my magic. However word has reached me of a blacksmith in the east who makes things from bronze that are filled with summer’s heat. I will write to him and ask him to make you a heart.”

“Thank you,” the swordsman said, taking back his sword. “Thank you for everything.”

The wizard sent out a raven with a diagram explaining what he needed and a bag of rubies and then he got to work.

He started with the sheath, for that was where the sword would be inserted to make the body her own. Most sheaths are wood but this one was metal, set with squares of copper. Around this he built the rest. With the scabbard as a backbone he curved ribs of ivory into a chest that he wrapped in steel. The sword would have no need of food so it was thin, more for form than function. The lungs were a pair of bellows, necessary only for the sword to talk, the airway the only tube that rose though the sweeping arch of her neck.

He added arms and legs, strong ones, and then began on the finer details. Her hair was soft threads of silk, her muscles stretched rubber. For the nerves he spun out gold into delicate wire and wove it through the body, a mesh that connected everything from the diamond eyes to the hinged toes.

Finally his raven came back baring the heart and he slotted it reverently in. It went in with a perfect click and life seemed to breath through the body as it started beating. The skin softened, the eyes flickered behind thin lids. It was a marvel, a dainty, sleeping, metal princess that just needed to kiss of steel to awaken it.

It was one of his finest creations but not one he felt good about.

The time came for the sword to gain her new body. The swordsman hung back nervously while the wizard stood over his creation, letting the sword feel it. He could feel her trepidation, her worries.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” the wizard asked her finally. “This is no small thing to change your mind over later, for once you go into this sheath you can never come out again.”

I’m sure, the sword whispered. I want to do this.

“Alright,” said the wizard and slotted her in.

For the first time in its existence the sword knew pain. It had nerves and those nerves were on fire, connections screaming down their lengths. Light, which had always played off her edges like water, was suddenly stabbing into her eyes. The drums in her head were reverberating with the screams that were coming out of her mouth as she drowned in sensations.

Then her hands, she had hands, were caught in a grip she recognised. Firm, careful, with calluses that they had made together. She clung to them and slowly the world around her began to make sense. And for the first time she really saw her wielder. The deep blue eyes that she now saw as beautiful. The soft mouth that seemed confident. And the hands, that anchored her to reality.

“Hello,” she said to him with a smile on her face. He grinned back. “I’m Serafina.”

“Hi Serafina. I’m Eric.”

Hand in hand they left the wizard’s tower, the dawn bronzing the leaves in the forest. A new day before them, a new future, for them to make of it what they wanted. Serafina was unsteady on her feet but Eric was careful, making sure she didn’t trip. He wouldn’t be her crutch for long. In time and distance she would dance.

They didn’t get far, however, when out of the trees stepped an ambush. Five men, all armed with clubs made of broken tree branches. Each had lost a relative or friend to the swordmen and they had banded together to seek revenge. It was just luck that they’d caught up with him here. Their good, his bad.

“I don’t want any trouble,” Eric said to them as they barred his path. “I have given up violence.”

“But that won’t bring back the ones that you killed,” they said to him.

“I have a new purpose in life, being in love.”

“But we loved the ones who died,” came the reply. “We are their retribution.”

It was clear that there would be no talking out of this and Eric had never been as good with his tongue as his weapon. Bravely he stepped forward.

But a swordsman without a sword is just a man and he was one man against five.

And there was nothing Serafina could do. This body was still strange to her and she could barely walk. For once in her life she wasn’t ready for a fight. Without Eric’s support all she could do was fall to her knees and watch.

When the wizard found her later she was knelt by the body of her fallen wielder, her bronze heart full enough to burst. He brought her back to his tower, where it is said that that she lives still. And where else would she go? She had lost her only place in the world.

The Ice Maiden

Once upon a time there was a village that nestled in the far north. Backed by tall mountains to the south it looked across a wide, white plain where reindeer roamed. By day the people who lived there would farm the land, fish in mountain lakes and hunt. By night they would gather together for warmth, carve antlers and sew pelts and watch the northern lights dance in the dark sky. Nobles in the great southern castles would describe life there as ‘idyllic’ or ‘bucolic’ but they didn’t know the strain that hard work put on the bones, nor the dangers from snapping ice and sudden storms. The residents loved their village, in spite of the danger and the hard work that every day brought. They were explorers and, for the good of all the world, heroes.

For the name of the village meant First Warning.

Every few years there arose in the north an Ice Queen. No one knew where they came from but the stories told of the signs. A giant castle of ice would rise, past where the fields of snow met the walls of glaciers, underneath the pole star. The winters would get colder and colder, the nights darker as the years went on until eventually a winter would come with ceaseless snow that would cover the world. Before this a hero would have to set out from First Warning, travel north and kill the Ice Queen. Otherwise all the world would be smothered in an eternal winter.

The signs of this rise were fickle. The elders of the village were tasked with watching for them, as they would be able to best judge when winters were getting harder and when a rise was imminent. But memory is based on perception and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason behind the rises and so sometimes a rise wouldn’t be noticed until it was almost too late.

Which is when our story starts.

The endless night had already started when the elders came for Adlartok. The sun had gone down three nights ago and had not risen. Although the signs before now had been ignored that did not mean that the village had not been prepared. Every generation a hero was chosen and trained and Adlartok was that hero. Tall he stood, and broad, with dark hair and noble bearing. He was the best hunter in the village, brought back the best fish from the hidden lakes and could live out on the ice for weeks at a time. The three elders knocked at his door and were let in by his sister, Uki. In the sitting room they met with Adlartok.

The elders told what he already knew, that the time had come, and what he did not. They gave him a knife from the far south, traded for at great expense. He looked it, the hilt iron, the sheath smooth leather. “I already have a knife,” he told them.

“That is not any weapon,” he was told in return. “It has summer trapped in it.” And indeed, when he unsheathed the blade the air in the room became stiflingly hot, the bronze leaf blade gleaming in the light from the oil lamps. “That is the weapon that will kill the Ice Queen.”

He sheathed the dagger and nodded to the elders. “I’ll set out tomorrow,” he told them. And so they left, talking of how brave Adlartok was, how they’d made the right decision.

It was only Uki, who saw the fear within him.

That night, when he got out his rucksack and started packing, she was right beside him, tall and dark like his shadow. “I’m coming with you,” she told him.

“This is my duty,” he replied, tucking the summer dagger deep into his pack. “It is dangerous.”

“All the more reason for me to come with you,” Uki replied. “I’m your older sister. I helped raise you, I taught you what you know.”

Adlartok laughed. “I’m not a child any more. This is for me to do and me alone.”

His sister looked at him for a moment then silently put away her rucksack. “So be it,” she said.

So the next day they embraced and then he set off alone.

The snow plains stretched out before him and he walked in silence, hunched up in his furs, his big body cutting a path through the packed whiteness. The wind howled around him, sneaking past his hood to run fingers down his cheeks to sink into his bones. Eventually, when he thought that night had come and when he could go on no longer, he made camp, lighting a fire from the small amount of wood he carried.

The next day was the same, and the next, and the next, each blending into each other and he walked across the featureless plain. There was nothing to see, not trees, not the occasional herds of reindeer that he had hunted here before. Just the dark, just the snow that filled in his tracks and fought against him, pushing him gently back as he pushed forward. Every day was just like the last and nothing was different.

Until one day it was.

The landscape in front of him changed, sprouted a dark hill that grew and grew until he reached it. Above him loomed the ice walls of the glaciers. He stood looking at them for a while then made camp for the night. He knew he’d need all his strength come the morning. After eating by the fire he finally looked back the way he’d come. The trail he’d made was almost filled in and he could see the lights of his home village, far across the plain. And closer, like a falling star, he thought he could see a small ember of a fire. But snow started falling and blew a flurry across his face and when it was gone so had the ember. He stared after it for a time then turned round and crawled into his tent.

He started early the next morning. The elders had spoken to him of this and he knew that he was finally close. Once he was at the top of the glaciers he’d be able to see the palace of ice. It was just a few hours walk away. Once he was at the top of the glaciers.

Out of his bag he pulled a pouch of iron spikes. Around a wrist he hung a small hammer. Into the ice walls he pounded first one spike then another, then a third above them. Testing to make sure they took his weight he stepped up onto them, grabbed the third and pulled himself close to the wall. It sucked at him, pulling away his heat but he ignored that and brought out another spike, pushing it into the ice and then hitting with the hammer. It proved sturdy and like this he slowly made his way up the wall.

It wasn’t smooth, this ice, but craggy and pitted. It reminded Adlartok of the mountains of home, the ridges and hollows that allowed purchase for hands. It took him hours but slowly he managed to make his way up. At last he raised his head and saw the sky above him, the top of the glacier closer than he could have imagined.

The end was in sight. He laughed, glad that he was almost there.

Then the ice crumbled beneath his last spike and Adlartok fell.

The snow itself was soft but the ice it shallowly covered was hard and it broke the hero when he hit it. Big fluffy flakes landed on him, soft as kisses on his cheeks. The world grew dark and the snow grew warm. And Adlartok died.

Either an hour or an eternity later, it didn’t matter which, Uki came and stood over him. The snow was still falling thick and she had to dig with her gloved hands, tears freezing on her face, until she could uncover him. She held him, one last time, and wailed in harmony with the wind. Then she took his pack from him and set up camp for the night.

By the time she awoke he was once again buried. Not able to look at the spot where her brother lay she walked over to the walls of ice and began her own climb.

The spikes her brother had hammered in still held strong and she scaled the walls with ease. She came to the spot where the ice had splintered and stopped a moment. Then she took the next spike from her bag and drove it in.

Eventually she made it to the top and the wind died around her. Before her was a frozen sea, waves and solid ridges of ice curling over themselves. There was a light in the distance, green, purple and blue, like the northern light caught in a spike upon the ice. She felt hatred and anger and the magic dagger that she’d taken from her dead brother heating her within and she started marching determinedly forward.

The uneven ice caught at her feet and she tripped and stumbled but her anger pushed her onward. The spire grew larger, sprouted wings and extensions until at last the castle of ice stood before her. Its bones were stone, shining white marble that shone out from places where the ice hadn’t yet grown over it. The doors were of purple ice, strong and imposing, with big flat steps leading up to them.

Her hand reached within her furs and gripped the summer dagger that nestled within. Then she started climbing the steps. The large doors barred her way but they opened easily at her touch, swinging wide and showing the grand entrance of the palace. A wide sweeping staircase stood before her, the bannisters ice and the treads stone. With blade in hand she stalked up them. The wind that tore around her had a cry now, a human sound and she followed the wailing.

And there in the throne room she found her. Not on the throne itself, a smirk as cold as the wind cutting across her face, but in the shadow of it, curled up in a small ball. A child, a girl, long white hair and big blue eyes the clear shade of ice from which tears slide down porcelain cheeks. She looked up at Uki, gave a sob echoed by the wind outside and threw herself at her, burying herself in her killer’s arms. Uki found herself holding the small warm body tight, the hair pressed against her cheek. She looked over the child’s shoulder, at the knife she still clutched tight in her fist and felt her heart freeze, the anger draining out of it. She knew she couldn’t do it.

The crying slowly faded and with it the cold. The girl looked up at Uki and smiled and with that smile a wave of heat ran through the castle.

“Who are you?” Uki asked the small girl in her arms, murmuring it into her hair. “Where did you come from?”

“I don’t know,” the girl replied. “I’ve always been here. I just know that I am alone.” She looked up at the older girl. “Please don’t go,” she said, tears beading in her eyes, as the temperature dropped again. “Don’t leave me all alone again.”

“I won’t,” Uki promised her, holding her tight.

They stayed like that for a while, a small pile of furs and companionship. Then it was interrupted by a growling in Uki’s stomach. The child’s eyes flew open.

“You’re hungry?

Before Uki could answer the girl can concentrated and a bowl of ice appeared on the floor beside them. “Eat this,” the girl said, disentangling from Uki and picking it up. She looked down and saw that the bowl was filled with snow.

“I can’t eat this,” she tried to tell the child but faltered at the look on the smaller girl’s face. Giving up she scooped a small amount of the snow into her mouth but was surprised to find it warm and nourishing. The girl laughed to see the expression on her face, jumped up and pulled the older girl to her feet.

“Let’s go play,” she said.

They explored the castle and the girl showed Uki all of it, from the top of the huge tower where a balcony looked back on the glaciers and snow plains, to a large bedroom with a feather stuffed bed. There the day ended, with the two of them lying together under white covers, Uki’s arms wrapped tight around the ice queen.

“Can you stop it?” she whispered in the small child’s ear. “Can you stop the winter?”

“Maybe,” the girl replied. Then she fell asleep.

Maybe, Uki told herself as she held the child tight. Maybe tomorrow she’ll get it under control.

Every day they would explore the castle together, playing little games, growing closer together. Every day Uki would ask the girl to try and control her powers to stop the winter and every day the girl would try but fail.

Every night Uki would stand at the top of the tower, looking through the steady snowfall back to where her village sat backed by the mountains. Every night she would watch for the light from their doors and windows, for the smoke that came from their fires.

Until a night came when, no matter how hard she looked, there were no lights to see, and no smoke rising into the air. And then she knew that her village had been buried.

“You have to try,” she told the girl the next day.

“Try what?” The girl asked as she played on the stairs with small dolls made of snow.

“You’ve got to stop the winter. It’s too cold.”

“I don’t find it cold,” said the girl. “It’s just right for me.”

“But it’s not for other people.”

She looked up, suddenly concerned. “Is it too cold for you?”

“No,” said Uki for the inside of the ice castle was always warm to her these days. “But there are others out there who aren’t me.”

“I’ve never met them. Why should I care?”

Uki took a deep breath, trying to stay calm. “Just try it, will you?”

“Ok, I’ll try. For you.”

The girl took a deep breath, closed her eyes and focused. The wind dropped to nothing and a sudden silence fell. For a moment Uki thought she could see the faint glow of a dawn though the windows.

Then the ice child’s eyes flew open and she burst out laughing, the wind echoing it with a flurry of snow.

Uki felt the sparks of anger stir within her again. Again she saw her brother, lying dead in the snow. Suddenly she was on her feet, yelling.

“People are getting hurt. People are dying! Do you want people to die? Because it’s your fault!”

The wind whipped fiercely against the ice panes. There was a rumble, a groaning, a shifting as the ice itself rose and bucked. The ice child rose into air that was suddenly glittering with frost. Uki felt her eye lashes freeze and she ran from the room, slipping on the ground. Behind her the queen hung suspended, cradled by her terrible power.

And then she collapsed, crying, onto the ground. Uki looked round the door, carefully approached and gathered the girl up into her arms.

“I can’t,” the ice child sobbed. “I keep trying but I don’t know how. I don’t want to hurt people but I can’t.”

“It’s ok,” Uki told her, pulling her tight against her. “Don’t cry. I’ll take care of it.”

That night she put her in the bed, with covers as white as snow. She told her of her brother, how she’d showed him the paths on their mountains that led to the lakes, how she’d taught him how to fish. She eased in beside her, held her close and sang the songs of her buried people until the ice child’s breath came deep and even. She cradled her, kissed her pale hair.

She slid in the knife.

And spring came again.