Part One of the Winter in Azuria Faery Tale Series
On a frigid night high in the Andel Mountains, Persephonie’s grandmother bids her to come nearer. There is a story they must tell on this night and each night thereafter, for twenty-one nights until the evening of the winter solstice.
Over these three weeks, the winter faeries emerge from their long slumber and spread their wings over the fields and fanes of the world of Azuria.
But if one gifted with Cassandra’s sight fails to guide the faeries on their path, other, long-forgotten trails will emerge to tempt the fae. If that occurs, the potency of the faeries’ magic intensifies, and an everlasting winter will seize the verdant earth.
The Frozen Castle and the First Card
“Come here, child.”
Babu’s scratchy voice drifted over the sparkling frost of the earth and pulled Persephonie away from the campfire and the laughter of her brothers.
Persephonie smoothed her heavy woolen skirt as she clambered over the brambles at the edge of the fire toward her grandmother. The shadows of the fire obscured the elderly saudad woman’s features. “Do you need something, Babu?”
“Yes, certainly I do,” Babu croaked. “Do you think I would call you over to me for no reason?”
“No, Babu,” Persephonie answered. She shook away the echo of Datha’s voice in her mind teasing his mother. “Your reason and that of others are not the same, Mama,” he would have said.
“There is something you must see, Sephie,” Babu whispered. “A story plays out before us, here in the days before the turnings of the world.” Babu patted the hard, crunchy earth beside herself. “Come and share in an old woman’s tradition, Sephie.”
Stiff blades of grass poked into Persephonie thighs as she lowered to the ground beside her grandmother. Winter with the muster was never easy. The scarcity blanketing the lands was particularly stingy with her offerings to the saudad on their travels. “We will make do,” Datha promised as head of the muster, “we always have.”
A hush settled over the patch of frozen grass, enveloping Persephonie and Babu in the muffled folds of a coming snow, the crackle of the fire dimmed by the hard-packed earth.
Babu’s stiff fingers stroked the wool of her skirt. Her nails caught on the embroidered leaves Mama had added to the fabric on the opposite end of the wheel of the year. “Your mother traveled with us for a few years, Sephie. And the winter before you were born was one of the harshest we have ever seen.” A shard of silver gleamed in Babu’s eye. “I sensed you were coming, and so did she. And I taught her a ritual so she could be prepared.”
Her grandmother turned back to the spread of cards before her. Though their edges were worn, Persephonie didn’t recognize the glittering castle etched onto the card backs.
“Before the solstice tips the great wheels,” Babu whispered, “spinning us on toward a green world once again, the winter faeries emerge from their long sleep with snowflakes shimmering in their eyes.” She turned over the first card, her movement stiff from swollen knuckles hampered by the cold. “They flit from place to place leaving trails of frost in their wake.”
Persephonie smiled. She knew this story. Mama had taught it to her the winter she stayed behind in the city. Duslan, the innkeeper Mama had been working for in Andel-ce Hevra, turned them out two nights before the solstice, and they sheltered behind a frozen fountain, beneath the limbs of a sweeping evergreen tree. “Their presence awakens the world,” Esmeralda her mother had said, hugging Persephonie against her chest, her shawl wrapped around them both, “but we must be careful, lest the full power of the winter fae returns, leaving all our world in shimmering shadows.”
She took up the refrain of her grandmother’s story. “And as the trails harden, as water turns to snow, the faeries’ eyes open.” Persephonie took a deep breath. The crystals of the air weighed heavy in her chest. She leaned toward her grandmother and lowered her voice. “They know where to go.”
Babu nodded, her eyes shining bright. “So it begins, child.” Pride melted over the features of her face, smoothing away the marks of age. “This year, it is your turn.”
Persephonie squinted at her babu, confused by what she meant. Before she could question further, Babu slid the cards together into a stack and placed them in her granddaughter’s cupped hands.
“We have started the story of faeries, Persephonie,” Babu explained. “It is now up to you to guide them on their frost trail.” She leaned back and tugged on the edges of her shawl, pulling them tighter about herself. Babu waggled her finger to stop Persephonie’s interruption. “They are counting on you, Sephie. Each night, you will draw one card, and you will tell one story.” Babu smiled down at the deck balanced loosely in Persephonie’s hands. “These are special, cher’a. We have carried them through the ages, and Cassandra bid me to entrust them to you now.”
Persephonie’s chest grew tighter as the meaning of her grandmother’s words flurried all around her. She tried to think back past the cold to remember her mother’s stories that long, dark night beneath the trees. The tears Mama had tried to hide sat frozen on her cheeks. “We must carry the spark,” Mama had said. “The saudad, your and your father’s people, they light the way for the faeries as they retrace the steps of lives they’ve lived before.” She imagined Mama’s tight embrace, gentle fingers stroking her hair. “They open doors to our world, Persephonie, and bestow upon us the glimmer of the Brightlands.”
She ran her thumb over the back of the cards stacked in her hands. At Babu’s nod, she closed her eyes and withdrew the first faery card that would guide them through the lengthening nights until the winter solstice.
Her heart thumped inside her chest as she neared the center of the deck. A white-haired fae with sea-foam-green skin stared back at Persephonie from the other side of the card. The woman stood before a vast lake, gazing back over her shoulder. Above her head, three snowflakes glistened. Vivienne, the base of the card read, Mistress of the Northern Sea.
“Gather around, faery friends,” Persephonie said to the hollow grasses angled toward her and her grandmother. “For this evening, we follow at the side of Vivienne as she waits to join her love across the vast expanse of the Northern Sea.” She closed her eyes again, allowing the crash of black waves to splash over herself as Vivienne, standing on the pale pebble-covered banks of the great Northern Sea.
The First in a New Winter Series
The seed of this story concept appeared to me earlier this evening and added with it a story challenge—to write one story each night for twenty-one nights. I’ve been playing around with the idea of special winter stories set in Azuria, and this seems perfect!
The story above lands at exactly 999 words, which is a fun and intriguing challenge to me too. I don’t want to promise here on December 1st that there will be a new story every day. But we shall see!
If you enjoyed this short story, be sure to check out some of the other short stories set in Azuria: