I once met three travellers on the road. One was dressed like a prince, in fine robes of purple and crimson; the second was a soldier with a sword at his belt and a dark glint in his eye; and the third was a wayfarer, a minstrel, who loped a little behind the others, smiling at a joke half-hidden. I couldn't tell you where they'd come from; I couldn't tell you where they were going to. I had never seen them before and I have never seen them since.
But they seemed wise; and so I asked them how to save the world...
On cold winter evenings, when breath froze in the air and the wind bit with frozen teeth, the people would tell stories of the Khionaskadi. She was known by many names, sometimes ‘the icy mistress’ or ‘she of frozen breath’, sometimes merely ‘the Winter Queen’. It was said that evidence of her passage through the night could be seen in the dawn light, in the trail of ice that clung to the fields. Many of the stories described her home, for she was not of this plane, but instead dwelled in an icy realm with plains of snow that stretched as far as the eye could see. The tales of how she came into being varied, often changing with each telling. Some said she had been a maiden, who had become lost in the woods one winter’s night, and had lain in the snow until it seeped into her being, freezing her heart and turning her touch to ice. Others said she was the daughter of the north wind, tasked with bringing forth snow and ice to be flurried by the north wind’s gales on winter nights. There were even a few who told a tale of a mortal man, who desired a maiden as pure as fresh snow for a wife. They said he crafted her from the first snow of winter, and gave her life with a kiss.
As with all mortal folklore, there were grains of truth in many of the tales. She was indeed a being of cold and ice, and she lived in a realm as cold as she was. But none of the tales truly told of all she was. She called herself ‘she’, for this was how mortals described her, though in truth she had no gender. But it was no more inaccurate a word to use than any other. Over the years, she had come to think of herself as ‘she’. She supposed that was the effect of mortals’ long-standing belief.
When she had first encountered the mortal races, she had been surprised by their fragile nature. She had supposed that beings who were susceptible to not only the ravages of time but also to so many physical ailments would have a powerful stature. Beset as they were by the many failings of mortal flesh, they would need power to survive beyond their first winter. And yet, these mortals were delicate, clinging to life much like mayflies in a desperate struggle to survive.
When she had first crossed from her home into the material plane, it was on the cusp of a winter evening. The sun clung to the horizon, as though reluctant to leave and take its warmth away with it, and splashed the sky with vibrant colours that made her think of holly and cranberries. It was the sun’s lingering presence that had allowed her passage, the potent magics created by the moment of sunset as day changed into night and warm departed, leaving the cold that was so familiar to her.
The cold air was so similar to her home, and yet altogether foreign. The smells the air carried were different, scents of smoke and stone, cut wood and meat floated around her. As she pressed forward, curious about the beings that had called her into existence, she became aware that around her, the forest’s foliage was becoming coated in a layer of frost. The wisps of her long dress were catching on the forest’s undergrowth and painting them icy white. She was a creature made of the cold, and the touch of winter emanated from her being.
As she drifted towards the small village just barely visible through the trees, she began to hear sounds that were as unusual to her as the scents on the air were. Sounds of laughter, the cries of young mortals, everything melded into a constant bubble of noise that seemed to blanket the village. After the crisp silence of her home, she couldn’t help but be carried forward into the hubbub. And so she found herself standing in the centre of the village, turning her head this way and that to catch more of the strange sounds, the strange smells and, above all, the strange sights around her.
Inevitably, a mortal caught sight of her. The news that the Khionaskadi was there spread rapidly throughout the village, like the rush of ice across the surface of a pond when she touched it. But none approached her. She wanted to talk with them, understand their world and the strange things around her. But as she drew close, they shrunk back, their breath fogging the night air as they gasped in fear. She withdrew then, not understanding their animosity.
In the passing years, she often visited the village. Her curiosity regarding the mortals naturally led her to explore, to interact, to try and understand the strange creatures. However, her curiosity faded as time passed, and she came to understand that their response to her presence would not change. Shock, awe and, most often, fear were so common to her now. It seemed the mortals were not interested in the stories she could tell or the knowledge she held, they were only fearful of her. She grew mischievous then, delighting in causing chaos with a gust of chilled wind or a touch of ice to the ground. If they would not speak with her, then she would laugh at them, at their clumsiness and lack of grace when surrounded by her natural element. This did not endear her to the villagers, and she often heard the warnings they would mutter to one another as evening approached. They knew well how she appeared on those nights when sunset would paint the winter skies in shades of crimson and bronze, and on those nights it was common for fires to be piled high to ward away the night chill and the creature of ice that came with it.
The mortals had several tales of the time she had spent a year in their world. It was commonly said that a mortal had tricked her into staying past the last sunset of winter, and she had been unable to leave until winter began again. Some said that this mortal was descended from the one who first created her, and that the descendant had tempted her far away from the forest that allowed her to reach her home, until it was too late to return.
The stories were wrong. She had not been tricked. She had met a young mortal, that was true. And it was for this mortal that she had remained past the last sunset. But she had not been tricked. This mortal had been intrigued by her, wanted to understand her. And she had not met a mortal like that in all the time she had been visiting this world. She hadn’t known it until that moment, but she longed for companionship, for someone to speak with and spend time with. So she chose to stay with the mortal. On the last day of winter, she had lingered outside until the last sunset of winter passed, watching as the sun dropped beyond the horizon, before returning to the home she and her mortal had built together.
For a time, they had been happy together. She showed the mortal things they could never have witnessed without her. She showed the mortal the extent of her powers, her ability to summon an icy storm, or call the winds to move as she directed them. She guided the mortal to places in the forest where magic grew strong, places where it could inhabit a tree or a passing stag, rushing through them and changing them, creating the creatures that the village told stories about.
But mortals fear what they don’t understand. This was a fact that she had learnt well over the years and chose to disregard when remaining with her mortal companion. The villagers didn’t trust her, and by extension, came to distrust her companion. And though she was accustomed to being greeted with fear, warding symbols or signs and, on occasion, outright hostility, she could see how this affected her mortal. They built a home outside the village, where they could hear the crash of the sea on the shore and where the villagers would not disturb them. But as months went by, the mortal grew lonely, without the comfort of their family and friends, and she knew her mortal would suffer for as long as they remained together. And so they parted ways, and she passed back to her home on the next winter sunset.
They still cared for one another, and she would often visit her mortal as time continued. They still shared many confidences. She lamented as each year the mortal showed more and more visible signs of ageing, until one day she passed through the veil to the material plane only to find that her mortal was no longer there.
It was harder after that. She had known what it was like to share her life with someone. To confide in someone and be confided in. She had known the warmth such companionship could bring. The cold seemed harsher to her now.
“DO YOU HAVE A STORY FOR THIS, TOO?” SHE HAD ASKED THAT EVENING, when the air had fallen still, pricked only by the occasional twittering of the small birds perched nearby. A young raven watched from the naked tree that stood tall next to them, its head tilted as its beak tapped out a strained caw.
The trees, black and empty, the black and grey covered in white, the green all stripped away by the changing days, and it was hard to imagine that the black twigs once bore flowers and the nests of birds from which nestlings sang for food.
Life draining away, ebbing helplessly with every new sunset that marred the skies.
And yet, there was beauty in that, still.
“Not quite a story,” Azerlathes replied, leaning against the very same tree, wings folded in and legs stretched, twiddling a twig between his fingers. “Not everything needs a story.”
“But I am sure there is something to be heard in this,” Venmaros chewed on a dried fig as she spoke, the stray curls of her hair dancing about her face as she tried in vain to push them away.
“I’m surprised, actually, that you have nothing to say. You always cook up something.”
“When I feel like it.”
“Yes, and you are not feeling anything, at present?” She cocked a brow and then yawned, stretching her arms and wings before leaning back. “You cannot be serious.”
“But what if I am?”
“You confuse me.”
“I’m glad I do.”
“You were the one who asked me for the story,” Azerlathes smirked, ducking just in time to avoid his sister’s swinging hand. “Hey, violence is forbidden, remember?”
“Unless it is justified,” Venmaros smiled. “I asked a question, and you failed to answer.”
“I did, actually.”
“No, you did not.”
“You asked me if I had a story, I said I did not,” Azerlathes said. “There lies my answer to your question.”
“Aww, second time,” he clicked his tongue, earning her sharp glare. “Perhaps the third time shall be the charm.”
“You’re seriously that bored,” Venmaros chuckled. “Your beloved humans don’t hold your attention as much anymore?”
Azerlathes felt the lightness slip away from him, his sister’s remark the barb that snatched away the cloak from his shoulders. “Ven,”, he said, “why do you always bring them up?”
“Because of this,” Venmaros inched a bit closer and reached a hand, touching her brother’s face, her eyes unblinking and a sigh resting heavily on her lips. “You are always so sad every time I mention them.”
“I don’t” Azerlathes forced a smile before sighing and giving in halfway through it. “Fine, yes, what else can I do? Do you not see why? Even after all that explanation I have given?”
“Lifespans?” Venmaros scoffed. “Look, that little wren there is in his first year of life, and probably only has a few more left before he’s dust. There are some insects around that live for just a day. So, I don’t get you. Humans live for a hundred years at most, so what of it? Why are they so different from the rest?”
“When the wren’s final day dawns on him, he bids it welcome with no regrets.”
“I suppose so?”
“The fly is glad to leave the way that he came.”
“What are you getting at?” His sister tossed another fig into her mouth and started chewing slowly.
The watching raven cawed twice, and then flew away, his wings leading him into the skies, and in the silence of the air, he disappeared as a black speck etched upon the blue sky that was now peeling away into shades of red, pink, and orange.
“You asked for a story,” Azerlathes said, standing up to watch the raven disappear. “It is time I gave it to you.”
“I’m listening,” his sister replied, walking forward to stand next to him, the tips of their first pair of wings touching. “I didn’t mean it to be like this. It was just a jest.”
“Stories begin with lies and jests, more often than we give them credit for.”
“Do you know where the sun goes to every evening as he sets?” Azerlathes’ question pierced with a suddenness that Venmaros did not understand.
She did not reply with words, but by quietly shaking her head.
“Death,” came her brother’s reply to his own question, the syllable resonant through the quiet wintry air, and Venmaros’ mind was beginning to fill with concern.
“Az,” her hands brushed against his. “I’m sorry, you don’t have to do this. We can leave. The lake, we can go to the lake and watch the birds come in for winter. Or anywhere, anywhere else. I promise I will not mock you anymore.”
“Why are you apologising?” Azerlathes asked, his voice thin.
“The sun knows that with darkness comes his death,” Azerlathes continued, not taking his gaze away from the orange thread in the sky, shrinking under the weight of the darkening blue. “And yet, he faces it the way he is born, bright and happy.”
Venmaros moved closer to her brother and wrapped a wing around him.
“Even in the darkest of days, he still comes to bid his greetings to the world before he is forced back to where he crawled out from.”
A shade fell upon them like a cloud, sudden like a sneeze, and the thinning thread of orange disappeared into the blackness of the night. The whiteness of the landscape around them now swelled in its intensity, the empty trees now mere etchings in the snow.
“His is a song of death,” Azerlathes continued, his voice fallen to a whisper. “But it is one which bears the promise of life. For each winter’s sunset is one closer to the spring.”
“Hmm,” Venmaros nodded along, not entirely sure if she had understood her brother. “It is beautiful. All of this, the setting sun, the snow, the cold…”
“Transient,” Azerlathes replied, “and tragic. Though in hope for spring, the sun sets, but the winter always returns.”
“And so does the spring,” Venmaros offered. “Right?”
“But a dead man never wakes,” Azerlathes sighed. He paused, and so did she, and the waves of their shared silence ebbed across the snow and rolled towards the distant mountains.
“Does that answer your question, sister?” He asked after a few moments had strolled past, and she stared at him.
“I don’t understand.” She admitted, letting her hand slide away from his.
“Unlike the wren, the fly, or even the sun, man dies into the darkness, reaching for that which he can never touch.”
“But he tries,” Venmaros continued, “does he not? He tries and listens and tries. If not him, then his son, then his son’s son and so on…”
“But the first man never sees this.”
Azerlathes shook his head and then, he said, “you are not wrong.”
“What?” Venmaros blinked.
“Every winter’s tale needs its teller,” he continued. “Perhaps this is what we were seeking.”
Venmaros merely nodded slowly.
“Thank you, sister,” Azerlathes turned to her with a smile. “You always know the best.”
“You’re… welcome, I suppose?”
As the birds fell silent into their slumber, Azerlathes embraced his sister with a kiss on her forehead.
Amelie swept into the kitchen in a beautiful ball gown.
Richter looked up briefly from the potatoes, then returned to his peeling. "Are you going somewhere?"
"No, of course not," Amelie responded. "It's the middle of winter. And I'm magical, not rich. Where would I wear it? How do I look?" She swirled around, the dress trim floating over the tiles like feather-light snow.
Richter looked up properly. His eyes crinkled into a fond smile. "Gorgeous as usual."
"I feel like a princess when I wear dresses like this. But I don't support monarchies."
"You look like a fierce, lovely citizen."
The dress was floor-length and wide-sleeved. It started a dark red at the collar, caught the sun along the way, and finished in a creamy, gold-tinted trim. It wasn't particularly form-fitting with its thick fabric belt and loose material, but Amelie's soft collarbones and hint of cleavage didn't need it. It had intricate stitching up the front and back holding the two pieces of fabric together.
“Are you stitched into that dress? How did you get it on?”
“Over my head. It’s loose enough.”
Richter nodded. “Well, that’s good. For later reference.”
Amelie shook her head and smiled.
The next day it snowed. Richter invited Amelie on a walk in the evening to the lookout so they could see the sun set over the valley. Amelie prepared a simple coat dress for the occasion, of course, which sat over warm snowpants and boots. It was purple-blue of the evening and had several layers of thick material, making Amelie look like a dusk-tinted marshmallow. As Richter looked closely, he realized the dress was made of dream-stuff.
They went out, Richter bundled in layers of jackets and Amelie in her dress.
“Do you not want an overcoat?” Richter asked.
“Are you doubting my craftsmanship?” Amelie teased.
Richter kissed her cold-red nose.
They made their way to the lookout through sparkly, crisp snow and stood, arms and bodies intertwined, as the sun set over the gentle valley below.
The third dress on the third evening was jet black and twinkled as she walked. Amelie ducked into the kitchen to show it off.
Richter didn't look up. He often fell asleep when it was warm, and that night was no exception. Although he would certainly wake with a crick in his neck the way he was splayed over the table. At the sink was Amelie's friend Sara, visiting from next door.
"Up to no good again?" Sara said with a teasing smile.
"Always," Amelie replied. "Pity Richter isn't awake to see this one. He would love it."
“Wake him up?”
“No, he was sleepy all day.”
The dress was made of sheets of night, stitched together into sharp angles by Amelie's magic. It was form-fitting around her breasts and butt, but with shoulders and sleeves and a hem that jutted out. The pseudostars on it glistened like snow crystals, a harsh geometry made beautiful. The dress stopped just short of the floor like it couldn’t deign to dirty itself.
“You look hot,” Sara said.
Amelie hesitated. “Maybe I will wake him.”
Sara gave her a knowing smile and left the kitchen.
This month we welcome Spritelady to staff as Tribounos (Site Adjudicator). The full election results were as follows:
Regularly Elected Staff
Jubal (FIF) re-elected unopposed as Basileus, 6 votes to 1 with 0 abstentions
Tusky (Ind) elected unopposed as Sebastokrator, 6 votes to 0 with 1 abstention
GMD (Ind) elected unopposed as Spatharios, 6 votes to 0 with 1 abstention
Spritelady (Ind) elected unopposed as Tribounos, 7 votes to 0 with 0 abstentions
Ratification of Permanent Staff
Jubal (FIF) ratified as Megadux, 7 votes to 0 with 0 abstentions
Glaurung (Ind) ratified as Sakellarios, 6 votes to 0 with 1 abstention
Lizard (Ind) ratified as Technikos, 4 votes to 2 with 1 abstention