by Myles Buchanan
Marrus woke in the night with the blankets clenched to his chest, and the cold wired from his heart through each of his limbs. His dreams were of hoarfrost and icicles, hail on black lakes, torchlight blurred with falling snow. The cold was deep inside of him, despite the blankets and tea and the hearths heaped with morrith wood.
The healer and priest and shaman each took their turns, but nothing worked. The days grew shorter. Winter storms tore morrith trees down to the trunk, to the root, and Marrus grew colder.
His dreams became more real than his waking life. White-blasted tundra, where kings wore crowns of ice, and peasants stitched their blankets with frost; where everyone, down to the smallest wolf pup, had eyes of glacier blue. Everyone except for me, that is.
I know all this because he told me. I know that he’s always looked for the scorch of my red hair, the brightness of my pale skin, because he wrote poems about these things and showed them to me, hoping. Like many boys, he believed that I could restore him, that I held on to secrets. But I’ve always been empty-handed.
“There was no sign of what we looked for,” I had to tell him once he was safely inside the cottage, shuddering hard with the first drafts of real cold. “No inns filled with candle smoke, no staircases spiraled round trees, no laughter or song. The elves, if they do exist, refuse to show themselves. The ice will freeze, and the wolves will cross the river, and tonight will be colder than any night before. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
I guess I’ve never been good with bad news. I pitied him but was glad the responsibility could no longer be called mine. I’d spent the earlier part of the afternoon ranging through the stocky morrith trees, pushing through growing snowdrifts, singing and whistling elf-songs, and at one point forgoing all ceremony and just begging them to come save us, to save me.
I told myself I was doing it for Marrus, but the truth was I’d been feeling less and less bad for him. As the cold spread inside him and his narrow frame shrank, he grew less beautiful, and I no longer liked the way he smiled. “You have to help me, Fera,” he had said, more than once, his eyes gone watery and turned brighter blue.
Who gave me this job? I wanted to know. What did I know of death, or saving people from it?
* * *
How different things were now from years before, when the summers were long and we climbed the morrith trees’ thick roots, made forts from branches and drapes of black lichen. Back then there were always more monuments to be discovered, standing-stones tilted and crumbled, statues with broken-off limbs and wind-worn faces, relics of a time better than this one.
I figured the elves were just out of sight. Once, Marrus and I discovered a low hollow of ferns that we never found again. We kissed; just once. In that light I guess I could love anyone.
My father used to craft us toys. He carved trinkets and figurines from morrith wood, and he polished hardened sheets of bark into game boards. In these younger days, Marrus and I would run outside as the sky darkened and the clovers came to glow, the forest dimming as the cottage grew brighter with the light of candles and hearth.
The cottage was always up on the hillock, waiting for us, and it only ever had us inside of it. My father would make supper and hot coffee and arrange his most recent carved game, and eventually we climbed the hill to join him. Even in full dark I could see the morrith trees, their silhouettes patient as old friends, less scary now that they were separate from us.
But even then I guess I could have known. It’s not that there weren’t signs. Sometimes the forest didn’t like us, and told us so with hard winds. It tripped us or broke the vines we swung on.
And sometimes the glades that had called to us from far away didn’t look so good anymore close up. I could see this on Marrus’s face. “Something’s gone wrong,” he said once, and pulled a chunk of moss from the side of a morrith tree.
The Alchemists smiled when they first arrived in our village, as kind as they could be in their white cloaks and silver hoods, speaking of immortality. They said they would honor the luckiest children with the chance to help in their quest. There were only a few volunteers.
Brandin Forr, twelve, talkative and charming, waved as the Alchemists led him away. Mia Gladden, the miller’s daughter, quiet and beautiful with wide gray eyes, was adored by all the boys of the village but forgotten soon after she was gone.
“She stays,” my father said when they came for me. He filled the doorway and they made no move against him. They seemed to shimmer, arranged at the threshold of the cottage. Their robes whispered like morrith leaves. “We will come back,” they told him.
“So you will,” he said.
When the Alchemists made their second sweep across the land, there were no more volunteers. People knew now how the children were melted down, turned from flesh to mush to flesh or so it was said.
Children were pulled from the hands of weeping mothers, lifted from the bodies of fathers who refused to give in. And here we were now: Marrus crumpled under heaps of blankets, shivering and silent, so close to the fire I could see the flames reflected on his skin.
My father played with his crossbow while ice-rain came down. “Incremental Release,” he said proudly, lifting the device of wood and steel for us to see. “That’s what I’ll name this thing, I think. If I ever do get the chance to name it.”
He was in plenty good spirits about all of this. The elves weren’t heartless, just hidden, he said. Their small white-haired heads would appear from behind the morrith trunks and their wrinkled hands would beckon us toward what we’d always sought. They were simply waiting for the right time.
Once the cold went away, we were to slip out the back door, make for the forest with what supplies we could carry and hope for some kind of mercy. To my father, this plan was a good one: Marrus would be saved from the cold, and I would be saved from the Alchemists. He wasn’t concerned with the possibility of silent snow-filled woods. He didn’t seem to be concerned about much of anything.
The clouds lowered and got kicked up by the north wind. The rain became snow. My father brewed a pot of coffee; Marrus shuddered under his blankets; and I went between reading my father’s books and glancing out at the empty streets.
I was getting into a good mood in spite of myself. The books I read described flaming hearths and hidden systems of tree-houses as if all of it was fact. I was starting to come around. After all, there had been hints: flashes of white hair, a whiff of scented smoke, and once, a single clear peal of laughter as we left the eaves of the wood for the cottage. The elves would show themselves, my father had explained, only in our time of need. Well, that seemed reasonable enough, or at least not impossible.
“You’ll be okay.” Marrus spoke past teeth that knocked against each other, and he reached out to hold me in his thin arms.
“We’re both going to be okay,” I said. “The morning will be a lot warmer.” But much as I hate to admit it, I cringed in his clammy touch. There was something about him that didn’t feel right. And I couldn’t read his eyes any more, seeing how blue they’d become.
“The boy is right!” my father said, refilling his coffee mug with a flourish. “I do believe the worst of it is over.”
But I soon started feeling bad. I thought again of the morrith forest when I walked through it earlier that day, with the rain and wind going right through my cloak and menacing the stocky branches. The trees did not seem like friends.
There were no elves, but there was a moment when I was certain I’d seen something strange over my shoulder. There ended up being nothing, just a strangely shaped stump and the remnants of ferns. But I ran out of there fast, fast. And I didn’t understand why.
* * *
They came after I was sure they wouldn’t: silver figures in the torchlight floating through the snowflakes, hounds trotting at their feet. I looked at them for a long time before my heart finally began to beat and sweat broke over each of my limbs. There were several moments when I didn’t know what I was seeing.
“Dad,” I was just able to say past the queasiness, “I think they’re here.”
He jolted up from his chair and grasped at his crossbow with trembling fingers. “Wait, wait,” he said, and he looked to me and then to Marrus, as if expecting to be told what to do.
By the time they knocked, we were bundled in as much clothing as we could fit on our bodies. My father hurled food at random into my rucksack, his face a blur of tears. He hadn’t expected this, not really, that was clear now. And Marrus was shivering even harder.
There were two more knocks on the door and then a crash as it was broken in, and even though I knew we had to run, run without hesitation so my father’s sacrifice would be worth something, I turned to look and saw the smug pale face of a young Alchemist, heard his reedy voice as he read the missive aloud.
My father seemed to brighten at the sight of them. “Ha!” he cried, and reached for his crossbow.
But the crossbow was not where he’d left it, and Marrus was not at my side. Instead, Marrus had picked up the crossbow and was pointing it at my father, his arms trembling with the effort of holding it, his frail body looking like it was about to collapse.
“We have to go with them, Fera,” he said, tears leaking from his eyes. “Do you not understand? It’s the only way for us to survive.”
I felt strangely far away from all of this. I was expecting my father to tell me to run, forget about him and get out while I could, but there seemed to be no expression at all on his face.
I felt frozen myself, my feet sinking into the wooden floor of the cottage that used to be ours. I couldn’t even tell Marrus that I hated him.
Then my father moved, gave a single bright cry and seized his crossbow from Marrus’s hands. The Alchemists all fired at once and my father’s blood settled on my face and hands, not splattered, just suddenly appeared on my skin as if conjured there.
Then I was running out the back door, the cold stinging my face, iced cobblestones sliding under my feet. I wasn’t thinking of my father, though I was smearing his blood from my face and hands. I was thinking of the elves.
Everything was snow-hatched to a blur. I could hear the Alchemists organizing behind me, preparing to make chase, but I realized with a small thrill that I was already on the eves of the morrith forest, and it seemed to me as if the stars and moon had pierced these low snow-clouds. The branches reached out toward me like the hands of old friends.
For a moment I thought a younger, kinder Marrus was running at my side, and I wondered if this other version of him could still somehow be alive. The elves would have answers, and already I could hear their kind voices. “I am here!” I cried out, and smeared away what was either blood or melting snow. “Yes, I am here!”
Though the voices quickly changed, it took me a long time to realize it. As my lungs heaved at the air and my legs began to falter, I was thinking only that it was strange how cruel and taunting these elven voices sounded, how deep and vicious was the barking of their hounds.
Then I heard the voice of the young Alchemist who had read the missive to my father. “A-hunting we will go!” he cried. “A-hunting we will go!”
It was this that brought the tears, that the hunters took such joy in the hunting. I looked at my hands, which were speckled with the burst of my father’s blood. I looked at a strand of my hair, colorless in this shade. What did I want? Kind torchlight ranging through the trees, crinkled faces, ruddy cheeks. I wanted wooden spiral staircases, candles that did not melt. I wanted to be tiny.
Wait, I wanted to say to the world, to the Alchemists and hounds. Wait. I was certain that it was just a matter of retracing my steps, picking back through old trails and afternoons to find the moment when things had shifted so badly and started heading toward now.
Copyright © 2015 by Myles Buchanan