After the prologue, this is the first chapter of The Broken Court, the novella directly following Lumina and the Goblin King.
It has not seen my editor yet and so is subject to all the warnings that come with such. Still, I hope enjoy reading it!
Chapter 1 – A Summer Crown for Winter’s Head
Hoarfrost had turned the trees around them into a forest of spun glass. The eld woman made her way through the ebony trunks, stopping every few steps to cut evergreen and holly boughs. She tossed them over her shoulder into the large basket she was carrying on her back, to be woven later into garlands for the winter solstice.
Glancing around, she saw the boy, Thom, walking just a little ways away. The silver cat followed beside him on little prancing feet, as they crossed over the frost-covered ground towards her. The boy’s eyes were bright as he looked at her, but she knew it was not her that he saw. His absent gaze looked right through her. Perhaps, he was watching the sylphs as they danced through the glittering white wood around them. Or perhaps, it was an entirely different wood that he saw, one where crystal trees grew and the queen of fairies ruled. Or had once ruled, as it was.
That did not stop her from smiling at him anyway, and speaking to him even though she knew he would not answer. She did not take his silence personal. In the past month, since he had come to live with her, she had taken up the habit of explaining what she was doing and why even though it seemed as if his attention was elsewhere. She understood what it was like to see what others could not, and how difficult it could be to walk in that space between two worlds. Unfortunately, she suspected that for Thom it was the mortal realm which appeared as if it were a dream, and the hidden one that was his reality.
They came to a small dell where the air felt warmer. She stopped, staring at the patches of color around her. The flowers, in their confusion, had sprung up from the ground despite the sparkling frost, making themselves into a summer crown for winter’s icy head. Had it been early spring, she would have thought nothing of it, but it was only just midwinter. She frowned. She could not say why, but a feeling of unease whispered through her.
A warm hand slipped into hers, and she was surprised to find Thom standing next to her. He was looking down at the flowers as well, his brow furrowed in the same way she suspected hers was. She smiled at the top of his head.
“A few more and we will be finished,” she told him, squeezing his hand.
She continued on with her gathering, but it was not long after that she turned them towards home. Thom held her hand the whole way back, while the silver cat, declaring his paws half-frozen, rode in the basket atop the evergreens.
That afternoon found her standing at the table, the evergreens she had gathered earlier stretched out before her like a miniature forest. The warmth of the hearth was at her back as she deftly wove the fragrant greens into garlands, wrapping them in red thread and stringing them with silver and brass bells. She watched the snow blow past the window in front of her as she went about her task; its multi-hued panes making a kaleidoscope of the flurries as they swirled by.
In only a few hours, the weather had turned bitter. The snow, which was at best only a light dusting at this time a year, was even now piling up into tall drifts. Usually, she did not mind being snowed in, enjoying the hush of the world outside as the snow blanketed the house. As long as the water butt and pantry were full, there was little need for her to go much further than the spring cellar door. But this year was different.
Looking back over her shoulder, she found Thom sitting on the hearth-rug watching the fire, the silver cat curled up next to him, fast asleep. Checking on him was something else she found herself doing often now. An increasingly familiar weight settled on her shoulders even as she smiled at the boy fondly.
She had not had a name for that feeling of heaviness the first time she felt it, but she did now. Strangely enough, it was loneliness. The loneliness of caring for Thom on her own, and the uncertainty of what the years ahead would bring for him. And for herself as well, if she were honest. It was a foolish feeling perhaps, but she felt it all the same.
Once the garlands were done, she set about hanging them above the windows. The sharp piney scent of them tickled her nose as the bells strung throughout winked merrily back at her in the firelight.
She had just finished hanging the last one when there was sharp tap, tap, tapping at her window. Opening it, she found a snow-covered raven perched on the sill. He wasted no time in shaking off his feathers and hopping inside.
“Fah! My wings are nearly frozen,” the phooka declared gliding from the table to a spot on the floor, closer to the hearth.
“What did you expect, flying out in such weather?” she asked, closing the window behind him.
“Tch! Cold-hearted! That’s what you are. All of a sudden, the weather outside seems balmy,” the phooka said, shedding his feathers and holding his hands out to the fire. “And here I am, having braved the elements, riding on the very back of the Northwind no less, all the way here just to tell you…”
There was a knocking at the door.
“…to expect visitors,” she said, finishing his sentence for him as she made her way towards it.
“Just so,” he grinned.
Answering the knock, she found a golden-eyed Lumina standing there smiling at her, snowflakes strewn through her hair like a string of stars in a blue evening sky. The sprite’s arms were full of snow-dusted bundles which she began to hand to Hoax, who appeared as by magic from inside the cottage. Lumina turned again to the pale stag standing behind her, unloading the last of the bundles from his back before stepping inside. The White Stag, now relieved of his burdens, followed in on his bride’s heels, changing to his more human seeming as he ducked his head to cross the threshold.
“Welcome,” the eld woman said, kissing first Lumina, then Lorne on the cheek as they passed by her. “What is all this?”
“We’ve come to spend the solstice with you,” Lorne said, walking over to where the various bundles had been piled. “And, we brought gifts.”
He began unwrapping them one by one. The first held a warm coat for Thom. The ones that followed were filled with shirts and trousers and a sturdy pair of shoes, all just the right size for the boy.
There was also a great deal of food to be had: wheels of cheese, loaves of bread, a cold ham, and small bags stuffed with sugared fruits and nuts. There was even a tightly tied basket of cranberries sitting off to one side, which she immediately set Thom to stringing.
Leaving them to the unwrapping, she pulled on her old shawl and made her way through the narrow door that would take her to the spring cellar. Just as she had hoped, there was still a jug of cider left from the batch she had made out of last season’s apples. They had been gathered from the progeny of the old apple tree, and though they did not contain the same virtue of immortality as their parent, they were tasty and made excellent cider.
When she returned she found there was barely room on the table for the jug she was carrying, so full of food was it. Which was fine because the cider was soon in a pot, set high over the fire to warm. Spices from her dwindling stores simmering serenely atop the golden liquid.
They ate and laughed while they hung the strings of cranberries. Taking care to light the candles she had waiting in the windows so that their warm glow would shine out into the darkness beyond.
She tucked Thom into bed just around midnight. The silver cat followed along, claiming that his hearth rug was too crowded. Which was true, for the rest of her guests were all sitting together on the floor in front of the fire, content in each other’s company, sipping mulled cider as they reminisced about the passing year.
And what a year it had been! It had seen her oldest friend, and her newest, find their deserved happiness together. It saw herself give up a gift beyond price when she gave the oldest tree’s last apple to Lumina. Which she did knowing full well that by doing so, she would once again age as any mortal would, for a time at least. And it brought her Thom, and with him, the changing of her whole world.
The shushing snow outside and the warmth of the fire in front of them lulled everyone into a dreamy contentment. Lumina and Lorne lay to one side of the hearth, heads pillowed on each other’s hips. The eld woman could not help but smile softly at the sight. Perhaps it should have seemed odd to have such beautiful, otherworldly creatures laying asleep, tangled together like two kittens on her hearth rug, but it didn’t. Seeing their happiness had chased away the loneliness of before, reminding her of when she was young. Of long nights just like this one, spent in front of a fire, keeping warm with friends or lovers.
She felt a soft weight settle across her back. The phooka’s chin came to rest on her shoulder, his breath warm on her cheek as he spoke low next to her ear.
“Do you wish that for yourself?” he asked, in a voice made for secrets.
“Why would you say something so foolish?” she retorted softly.
“Am I asking something foolish?”
How to explain the different aspects of love to a creature such as the one sitting next to her?
“Yes, you are. And if you understood the human heart, you would know how foolish a question it was,” she replied.
“Perhaps, and perhaps the question I am asking is not the one you are answering,” he suggested, smoothing his hands over her shoulders as he moved away.
He had left something behind. Her fingers, reaching up, brushed across fabric thick and luxuriant. Drawing it closer, she saw that it was a lovely green shawl, beautifully woven. The silken threads beneath her fingertips were cottony and soft, and unlike anything she had seen before.
“I don’t see why Thom should be the only one to receive gifts,” he said, wrapping the shawl more securely around her shoulders. “A gift freely given. To keep you warm, and to give me a soft place to rest my weary head,” he finished, laying his head on her shoulder, daring her to admonish him.
She sighed in defeat and fond exasperation, allowing him to stay where he was. Resting her own cheek against the top of his head, she watched the salamanders dancing in the fire. The furry tip of Hoax’s ear twitching ever-so-softly against her lips with each out-going breath.
“Do you want to see something wondrous?” a voice whispered quietly in her ear, waking her from sleep.
She opened her eyes to find herself looking up into Hoax’s face, her head now laying comfortably in his lap.
He gestured for her to stand, so she did, wincing as her stiff muscles complained. Hoax took her hand and led her to the window nearest the hearth, its glass panes, traced in frost, hiding the outside world behind icy lace. He undid the latch, opening it just a crack so that they might see out.
The night was clear now, sharp-edged and brilliantly cold. Just beyond the linden tree, she could see two figures dancing out on the snow.
Their feet left no prints to mark their passage. No music guided their steps, or at least no music that she could hear, yet they moved with sureness and grace. The moon was caught up in his silver antlers and the stars tangled themselves in her hair. With each sway and turn the world was made right around them. Spring was in every touch they shared, and autumn in every kiss. Every parting brought with it winter and every return summer. Their dance was eternal, and in that infinite moment, the music of the world revealed itself. It was a song not meant for mortal ears, though they themselves were a part of it. The endlessness of eternity filled her mind as she understood truths she knew she would not remember. She was but a mortal being and her heart ached as she watched the dancers. They were as stars in the sky, pure and beautiful and so very far above her.
A warm hand cupped her cheek, wiping away tears she had not even known were there.
“This is not at all what I intended.” And for once the phooka’s face was serious. “Forgive me, sweet witch, I did not think. Humble beings such as you and I are not meant for such lofty things.”
“Such lofty things?” she repeated, her ire growing unreasonably. “Do you think I wish for them? Only a fool tries to hold the sun. I, for one, would much rather bask in its warmth.”
“Would you? I thought you loved him once.”
“I do still,” she agreed. “But not as I think you mean it.”
“You sacrificed half your sight for him,” the phooka pointed out.
She had given up much more than that to see Lorne happy and whole, but she had no desire to bring the phooka’s attention to that.
“And when he was blind, you were his eyes for a century or more. Though you were no more obligated to do so than I was,” she retorted, annoyed at his interrogation, yet at the same time feeling perversely grateful for it. “You will admit that there are those who are deserving of such kindnesses. Ones like your king and his bride, who do for others with no thought of gain for themselves.”
“I will wholeheartedly admit it,” he said, closing the window. The dancers disappearing from her sight behind the frost-laced glass. “But your answer is really no answer at all.”
“It is as plain an answer as you could ask for, and certainly plainer than anyone you have ever given.”
“That may be, but I think I need it to be even plainer.”
“Even plainer?” she scoffed. “How can I be any plainer than ‘I love him still’? Is it the ‘still’ or the ‘love’ that I need to make plainer?”
“Oh ‘love’, definitely ‘love’. I think everyone could stand to have that made plainer!” he laughed softly. “And I am curious to know what you meant when you said ‘not as I think you mean it’.”
“I am not going to try to explain the different aspects of love to a twisty-tongued creature such as you,” she said, voicing her thoughts from earlier. “You would get too much pleasure out of spinning my words on their heads.”
“Explanations of love should set your head spinning,” he agreed, nodding sagely, but the twinkle in his eye told her he was taking great delight in teasing her.
“Ach! You make me tired,” she said.
“I could if you would only let me!”
“Enough, you ridiculous goblin,” she said with familiar exasperation.
Hoax held his tongue, smiling at her in much the same way as the silver cat did when he happened upon an unattended crock of cream. She eyed him suspiciously, wondering what mischief he was up to.
There was a shifting in the world around her; a turning of the tide. Though the darkness still held sway, the long night was over. The old year was passing, and soon the sun would rise, bringing with it a new year and new beginnings.