Putting off Something New till next Sunday—winter story instead

I’ve had a busy week—working extra around the holiday to cover for coworkers’ travel, spending time with visiting family, etc.—and I haven’t gotten through my Something New post (the annotations to This Wasted Land). Instead, I’ll share a creepy winter short story.

I shall tell you a story now. There is nothing I like so well as telling stories. This one is true, although you may not believe it. You need not. You may even ready yourself for that boy to come—Cody, he is called?  I shall tell all the same. What I have to tell happened to a girl no older than you are. It was winter like now, and cold like now, but the roads were not so good and the traveling was slow. They had only carriages then, not cars—but you know that, do you not, my clever girl? She was the daughter of a lord, the girl, and she was to be married to another lord. That was why she was traveling, to go to his castle. Her beauty and goodness and such things were enough, I suppose, but she could have been any other lord’s daughter, you realize, betrothed to any other lord she did not care for, not like the girl in the fairy tales.

Already you do not believe me, do you? It is as well.

It was winter like now, but colder and bitterer, and she would not have been sent until spring if the wedding had not been so very urgent—politics, you understand, politics. You need not bother with it. The lord sent her out with guards and horsemen all in fine array and the sun shining on the flat snow, covered in richest furs and quite hoping to get lost and quite sure she would not.  

It was not far to the other lord’s, you understand. The way was short and straight, and she herself had traveled it before. The coachman knew it blind. But when the blizzard comes you are worse than blind. It was sunset when it hit. The girl had finished her supper and was going to sleep. Mostly they slept when the dark came, in those days, because they did not have lights like now—but you know that too, am I right? Do not be angry. I forget how much you learn in this school of yours, my lovely girl. The other girl was going to sleep, but the wind came and great clouds of snow were hurled about and the coachman would not stop, because he wanted to reach shelter. Very soon, he did not know his left from his right nor the earth from the sky, for all was white that the lantern lit, and the horsemen who had been sent with them had gotten lost. He shouted for them, and they did not answer, and the girl was frightened, but not so very frightened. She did not know what he did, that they had lost the road as surely as they had lost the horsemen and could not find it again, not till the snow cleared and maybe not even then. She was only a bit alarmed and rather cold (although not so cold as the coachman, for I already said she was all wrapped up in furs) and imagining happily that she would not reach that other lord’s castle for another day.

The coachman then took the other girl from the coach and set the both of them to search for the road and the horsemen. It was horribly cold, and the girl was weak, being pampered, and soon she thought at every step she could not take another. He was not much better, strong coachman that he was, and he was also a fool, for he thought he would find the road and instead lost the coach. The girl was before long angry with him, but more than that, she was tired. They were always tripping and falling. She was hurt and cold, and very soon only God, and maybe not even He, knew where in that great, dark tangle of forest they were. That forest isn’t there nowadays. They’ve cut it all down for farms and houses and firewood—but you know that already.

She began to fancy things, too. You too would fancy things, that witches cackled and all of that. Your Cody is only taking you to the dance down the road; it’s so dull how nothing happens when you drive through town, in your cars. But she fancied ever so many things and then she fancied she saw a glittering light. The snow had died down then, you know. But there was nothing to see but trees, and they could still see nothing but black except where the lantern lit—the trees were so thick the sun scarce entered in the day, let alone the stars by night—and the lantern was failing. But she fancied she saw a light and told the coachman to go to it, and he did not see it and told her it was nothing, as she herself well knew. But he did not know where he was going with his dying lantern, so he followed her because she gained strength as she saw it and he did not. The lantern she took from him, too—that much stronger was she and that much weaker he—and he seized her furs not to lose her. He was at his wits’ end—and he had few wits—and he had been awake longer than she.

The girl was cold and sick and tired as she had never been before, as you have never been at all, but would you believe that—so very much did she prefer an adventure to a betrothal—her disappointment was equal to her relief when she thought it was the great castle of the lord to whom she was to be married? But that was as foolish a thing to think as the coachman’s idea of searching—you, of course, would never be so foolish—for though that way was short and straight, it was not so short that you could stop a half a day into the journey and get to it on foot in two hours—for two hours was the longest, the girl would have assured you, that they had walked. And from the castle there was the music of a dance—not the sort of music and the sort of dance you are going to, my dear, oh no; a dance with the viols and the pipes and the drums. They came near it in a clearing, and the light the girl had seen was actually many lights, a thousand thousand gold lanterns dancing on the snow round the castle like the music danced round inside it, and though clouds covered all the stars they saw the sky. Although (as I may have said; I do not remember) the coachman was now weaker than the girl, he said of a sudden, all a-quiver with fear as well as cold, “I’ll not come a step nearer that castle, nor shall you for the life of me.” He saw that it was not a right sort of castle but the kind of castle that appears here or there or anywhere, to the dying and the unholy, or to the doomed lost, and is peopled by strange people not like me or—Heaven forbid—like you.

It was too late for the coachman’s caution, for two had ridden from the castle to meet the lost ones, and I tell you again that, although those of that party had face and limb like any you might meet among us today, you have never seen such as the least of that castle.

“Come, strangers, enter. You are lost. It is cold without our walls and warm within. Feast, drink, and be merry with us,” said the taller rider. Thus saying, he took off his fur coat, wrapped the girl in it, and lifted her to his horse as the other did the same for the coachman, who (foolishly? I cannot judge) fought but lost, for he was indeed weak. And both, who, you see, had been cold (I must be truthful) since very near the beginning of the journey, were quite suddenly warm.

You have never been within such a castle. No, my dear, never have you been in any castle, let alone this one. Great halls stretched to the skies, lit only by the twinkling lanterns. Yes, a shimmering twilight of gold, all smelling of cinnamon and incense, that castle. And each of them got sent up with servants—the coachman, who, after all, was a servant, muttering—to wash.

Yes, and then they took her to the great hall, where there was a great banquet laid out and the music played heavy and wild to that older beat. The coachman found the girl when the maids left her and told her she was by the Lord Almighty not to dance or to eat of the food—it was the food of the dead. Now, she was a girl like you. As you are good, my dear, she was good, and she was content to watch the dancers. Will you and your Cody dance? You will, I imagine. How dull to sit out. The least of that castle, I believe I told you, is beyond what we know, poor folk that we are. She saw the greatest. To the mighty drumbeat of that twilit hall danced the sun and the moon and a lady whose gown was the night sky and a lord clad in the rainbow.

But how easy to forget what one is bid by a mere coachman among all those great ones! The one who had carried her to the palace asked of her a dance, and she agreed. Of a sudden she was turning and leaping, her pulse moving to the drumbeat, first at the hand of one lord, than the next. Yes, oh yes, she stumbled, for though she danced quite well, her feet knew not the speed and lightness of those ones’ feet—even you, my dear, would stumble—but it did not matter and her feet grew light in the end. Sometimes one of them would offer her an apple or a pastry or a candy from the banquet table, but she turned them down, though you must understand how hard it was, for she had never seen such food (nor have you, of that I am sure, my dear). Yes, and soon she saw her poor coachman, crumpled and alone, clutching the rosary although he feared no prayer would reach his God in that castle.

“Dance with me,” the girl told him, but he shrank, his eyes wet with terror. You see, my dear, he did not even realize it was his own mistress until the moment she turned away, so noble was her step and so wild her eyes. She danced on, and he cowered, growing smaller by the second. The drumbeats hit him like blows, and the splendor hurt his eyes. And they danced into the night.

Then the girl found herself before one she thought might be he who had brought her or perhaps might be the king of that place. He held to her lips a golden chalice, brimming with—well, I do not know what was in that cup, nor do any still in this world, but I do know it cost her everything she possessed to turn away, and as she did so the cock crowed. Then she stood in a clearing in a forest at sunrise as her horsemen and retinue closed upon her.

You well might wonder what happened then, but it was nothing. She went off and was married to her lord and lived quite the ordinary life for such a girl; it really was not that bad. The coachman never did return though. I can only presume that, for all his piety, he did not have her strength in the matter of the chalice.

And there is the doorbell, my dear. Your Cody is waiting. You have not listened to a word of this, I see it, and you are going to complain about mad old great-grandma to him. It is for the best. I am indeed mad, after all, and the story was not very good even if it was true—yes, it is for the best…

I meant to expand this into a contemporary fantasy story, as perhaps you can see, and I may yet. Meanwhile, I hope everyone has/had/will have a wonderful holiday, and I thank everyone for reading!

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