Well, here we are then. I’m going to start posting this as a work-in-progress. I’ll set this up as posts of about a thousand words. This is just a first draft, so the final version may end up quite different. I don’t want to comment too heavily about why I might be choosing to do one thing or another… that might be giving away a little too much of the long-term plot. But, seeing the work develop in a piecemeal way on this blog seems alright. I have also attempted to turn on my comments… I’m not sure if I’ve managed to make the commenting work, but if not, I’ll keep trying until I figure it out. Without too much additional wandering, here is the first thousand or so…
The air was brittle with cold. A stillness held itself coyly in the hollows of the landscape. It clung to the underside of mossy half-fallen trees. It was submerged inside the shadows that lay on the frost-crusted mud and leaves. When the stillness broke, it was under the weight of the barest, lightest sound; a thin young voice raised in song, somewhere down the wooded road.
The hundreds of crows that flocked together to roost in this woodland looked down, peering at the noise below them. They shuffled on their branches and gave out their own low caws and rattles, as if they had needed someone else to break the silence first, before they would dare it.
Caewen was riding her slightly strange, slightly eerie looking horse, Dapplegrim, and she was singing one of the old mountain songs of her family’s village. It had a lot of nonsense words in it. “Lobbardy, lobbardy, luue, the cat went up the flue, lubbardy lo, the cat fell down, and splashed right in the stew. Lobbardy, lobbardy, luue…” and so on.
Dapplegrim was humming along with her, his voice much deeper and much quieter, like a gently distant thunder. When she finished, he said, louder, “Once more!” His sharp teeth showed as he spoke. The strange, skullish cast of his horse-face and the gleaming red of his eyes made for an odd contrast to the otherwise friendly tone, and the way he was swishing his tail about while bobbing his head.
“Alright then,” said Caewen. “Lobbardy, lobbardy, luue…”
They trotted together down the wild road like this, her in the saddle and Dapple singing along hushedly, punctuating the song with occasional, “Hurs!” and “Hurms!” They were winding their way south, and although they had not seen another soul for two days, they were close now to the hill called Sorcery Tor, their destination. As yet, they had not spoken more than a few words concerning what they hoped to achieve once there. Awkward questions hung over the whole attempt. Why would a big muddle of magicians with important matters to discuss even spare the time to listen to a farm girl and her strange horse-creature? What did Caewen and Dapplegrim really have to say about the Winter King anyway? Vague warnings from a dead enchantress? Some rumours. Some whisperings. Maybe no one would listen to them. So, maybe all that really mattered was fulfilling their promise to Tamsin. Maybe that was enough.
Deeper in the woods, they came to a stone bridge and Dapplegrim clattered onto it, his hooves snicking and clicking on the hard surface. Without meaning to, Caewen felt her voice fall silent. Dapplegrim slowed, then stopped. He turned his head to try and get a better view of her out of one eye. “Cae?”
She was looking to their left, at the frozen patchwork of pond and reeds. The shadows were deep here under a canopy of willow. The morning frost had not melted under the day’s wan sun. There had been no sun here to melt it, and there would be none. The canopy was thick enough to keep the light from this hollow until sunset, now only a few hours away. A wind stirred, throwing sparklets of cold half-light through the leaves and darkness. Somewhere, a wren sang a few lonely notes then fell back to silence. Caewen shivered. She felt the coldness as something palpable. This had been a strange new feeling in her ever since her bargaining with the snow-demon. The sensation made her shiver. She felt an urge to simply reach out and take up the chill of the air in her fingers, and draw it to her like a vast sheet of cold hard silk.
“Caewen?” said Dapplegrim again, a note of worry in his voice.
She shook her head. “It’s alright. Keep going. I just–” She breathed out a pent-in tension. “Since the ice-thing was inside my mind. I just–“
“Things will be different.” Dapplegrim started off again, now at a quicker pace. “Magic like that doesn’t leave a person unchanged. It will have left marks inside you. What exactly?” A shake of his mane. “Hur. And for how long? Who knows?”
She closed her arms around herself as if she were standing in a freezing wind. “It’s alright, Dapple. It’s not painful… just, odd.” She cleared her throat. She blinked to clear her vision. There was a slight wetness there. A quick dash of fingers to her eyes. Was she crying? Why would she be crying? Taking a breath she said, “No, it’s just, how can I put it? When I feel the cold now, or come too close to ice or hoar, or even just sleety rain, I have this urge to reach for it, to move it around, pull it and tease it out, like a grandmamma measuring and cutting cloth for a blanket. Or a toddler grabbing at something shiny. It just feels so instinctual. Purely without thought.”
“That’s an odd way to phrase it,” said Dapplegrim. He was not disguising a note of suspicion. “At both ends. Old and young. Grandmother and toddler. Why did you pick those images?”
“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “They just came into my head. But that is how it feels. Like I’m at the beginning of life, and at the end of life, all at once. I can’t shake that sensation. It might even be growing stronger.”
“Well, whatever you are feeling, hur, you must not give into it. That creature’s magic, the ice-weird: its knowledge is still inside you, curling around. If you give into the urge, maybe you could pull and tug at raw coldness and make it into whatever you wanted it to be… magic is like that… it is hard to know exactly what you can do with it until you do it, but you must not. You’ve no wellspring to draw on. No power. Only your own life. If you try to push at the world with magic, the world will push back.” He continued, a little uncomfortable. “And then who would pay for hay in towns or a nice stable? I mean, I could find some other person, but you know. I’ve gotten use to you. A bit.”
She reached forward and scratched him on the neck. “Oh, Dapple. You really do know how to make a person feel treasured.”
“I’m just saying. Hur. It’d be inconvenient to find someone else. That’s all.”
She smiled, and they rode on, into the lingering afternoon light.
The crows in the canopy above seemed to grow more restless. Caewen looked up more than once, wondering.
Dapple pipped up suddenly. “Hey oop there, look. There’s someone on the roadside.”
He was right. It looked as if a traveller had bundled themselves up under a heavy shawl or blanket, and sat down next to the road. They had a long and straight view under the beeches here, so Caewen and Dapple had plenty of time to consider the scene as they neared. The forest on either side was thin with little undergrowth. It didn’t seem like a place for an ambush.
“I suppose it’s a weary traveller,” said Caewen, not sounding very convinced. “Perhaps a sorcerer on their way to the moot?”
“Maybe,” said Dapplegrim. He didn’t elaborate. As they drew closer he started flaring his nostrils, sucking at the air, as if he was trying to draw in the whole of the woods, snorting and snuffling.
“Well?” said Caewen.
“An old woman.” Sniff. “Alone. There’s no one else about.”
“So, maybe a broom-cutter or old woodcutter’s wife?”
Dapple shook his head. “No. Your first guess is closer I think. There is some magic here, but it’s faint. It’s in the air though, stirring about, all the same.”
When they were quite close, Caewen called out in a friendly way. “Hello there. How are you fine afternoon?”
Though the layers of cloth hanging off her were thick, it was still possible to see the bony curve of her spine under fabric. Several dishevelled curls of iron-grey hair hung lump from the wrap that otherwise hid most of her head. A jutting old lip, splodged with age, blue with veins, was visible too, gleaming with a sheen of spit. There was a slight quiver to her. Perhaps she was infirm. After waiting a moment, it was obvious the woman was not going to reply. Instead she just kept rocking where she crouched. Dapplegrim gave out a sound like a low huff. “Well,” he muttered. “Impolite.”
But Caewen frowned, and swinging a leg over the saddle, she got down. “Hush now, you.” Her first couple steps were uncertain and sore. She had been in the saddle since they’d stopped for a midday meal. Besides which, she was still not fully accustomed to long days riding. Muscles twinged with soreness up and down her legs. Taking another, slightly less painful step she said, “Hello there? Are you alright?”
Caewen was close to the woman now. As bent over, reaching out, Caewen dimly heard Dapplegrim raise his voice and yell, “Caewen! Don’t!”
She froze but was too late. The old woman snatched her right hand out at Caewen and took hold. Her fingers felt like steel shrinking as it cools after the forge. Caewen wrenched her hand back but could not pull against the strength. As she tried to tear herself away, the old woman stood up and her age fell from her. The rags and tatters flaked away like bits of old skin from a snake, becoming instead a rich gown of deep crimson and black, decorated with garnets as red and bright as fresh-sprayed blood. The skin that had been wrinkled and patched with age-spots changed too, but this alteration was stranger: the right-side of the her face and body turned young and beautiful, skin flushed with health, eye sparkling. The left side gathered a grey and dead sheen, touched here and there with corpse-blue. The left eye turned milky and lifeless. Her hair on the left seemed somehow more brittle and faintly discoloured. The line between youthful and dead ran like a welt down her forehead, nose and chin, neck, to vanish inside the folds of the dress.