A Very White Hell Solstice, by Ginn Hale
Until he’d traveled far north into the Mirogoth wilderness Kiram hadn’t truly understood how profound and abiding the darkness of winter could be. Here the faint disk of the sun hardly rose above the horizon for a few hours before the biting cold of night closed in once more. The deep drifts of snow gleaming beneath the full moon seemed to radiate more light than the sky.
Kiram drew his reindeer cloak in close to his body and buried his mouth and nose in the musky folds of the ox wool scarf he’d bought from a lanky Irabiim mother two months prior. Both the scarf and the heavy cap he wore pulled down over his ears had only cost him a set of carved, ivory buttons that he’d won from the woman’s son earlier in a dice game. Kiram suspected that the weathered old mother had made the trade less out of desire for the handful of buttons than out of pity for Kiram’s southern-bred sensitivity. While Javier hardly noticed heat or cold, Kiram had started shuddering and shivering soon after the autumn frosts appeared and long before their caravan reached the northernmost point of their winter travels.
Despite the cold, the Irabiim campfires numbered few and often seemed little more than beds of smoldering embers. These Mirogoth lands were not an Irabiim domain but belonged to the Grimma--powerful witch-queens whose minions hunted the fir forests in the guise of huge wolves, giant white bears and leopards with teeth like hunting knives. Not even a caravan of some thirty adults, traveling under the protection of two Bahiim invited attention by stoking great fires in this forest of twilight and darkness. In fact very few caravans traveled as deep into the Grimmas’ territories as this one Javier and he had joined.
“Which just goes to show that flipping a coin isn’t the best way to make a decision,” Kiram muttered to himself. Absently, he toyed with a bit of metal he’d managed to cast and polish into a small gold circle. If only Javier were here now to argue with him…
For just a moment fear seized Kiram as he allowed himself to admit that Javier had been away on the Old Road for far too long now. He should have returned weeks before the winter solstice, but now the shortest day broke, faint and pale but there was still no sign of Javier.
Kiram tried not to think on it and kept busy most of the morning trimming star tern plumes into writing quills. Between the heat of his hands and the ash coated embers of the fire he managed to thaw his ink well enough to even pen a few very rough letters on pieces of white birch bark--one to his mother and another to Nestor. Who knew when he’d ever have a chance to mail them, but it made him feel better just to image that he was in communication with friends and family.
After that he repaired several harnesses as well as a few buckles for other members of the caravan. With access to a workshop or forge the small repairs would have been easy, but out in the snow and wilds, even simple work challenged Kiram to find novel ways to use the few resources and tools he possessed. He didn’t know if he would ever have stretched his imagination to such extremes had it not been for the necessities of a life lived in deprivation.
It frustrated him at times, but when he at last succeeded he always felt a rush of pride in his own ingenuity.
In the faint light of what passed for noonday, a particularly handsome young man named Mauz brought him a silver chain necklace with a bent clasp.
“You look so sorrowful,” Mauz commented. “Certainly my necklace isn’t too difficult for your great skill?”
The heavy-handed flattery brought a smile to Kiram’s face. Mauz was certainly handsome, his gold hair like Kiram’s own, slipped in wisps from beneath his hat and a lustrous sheen of perfumed oil lent a glow to his dark skin.
“No, your necklace is not about to break my heart.”
“You still pine for your Bahiim lover?” Mauz shook his head with the same expression he’d worn when he’d seen Kiram toss a scrap of meat from his plate to the camp dog. “How heartless your Javier is, leaving you all alone so long. If he cared he would be at your side now warming your body with his own, not riding the Old Road in search of trouble.”
How many nights had Kiram thought the same thing? And yet he couldn’t help but defend Javier.
“That’s his holy calling. He wouldn’t make much of a Bahiim if all he did was heat up my cold nights.”
Mauz cocked his head slightly. “But he’s been gone too long. Nakiesh and Liahn returned from hunting the Hill Ghost fifteen days ago.”
Kiram had no answer to that. Javier should have returned with the two Bahiim women and their huge flock of crows. But according to Nakiesh, he’d turned away from them in the demon-haunted darkness of the Old Road. They hadn’t known where he’d ridden but he’d seemed intent and they hadn’t thought it was their business to deter him.
“Perhaps he’s returned to his pampered Cadeleoninan life,” Mauz suggested “Maybe he’s enjoying some fat Cadeleonian boy tonight. You’d be in your rights to take another lover, particularly on the solstice.”
Kiram shook his head. He’d been willing to die for Javier—to abandon the sweetness, warmth, and wealth of his home for Javier—he wasn’t about to debase all of that for the fleeting comfort of just any warm body.
Kiram turned Mauz’s silver necklace over in his hands, admiring the delicate metalwork. The nomadic Iarbiim weren’t likely to have smelted such pure silver, much less forged the flawless links of the braided chain. Native Mirogoths religiously eschewed both the fires and the mechanisms required for any such fine metalwork. They crafted most of their weapons and jewelry from stones, antlers, and bones.
“Is this lovely workmanship. Is it Labaran or Cadeleoninan, do you know?” Kiram asked.
“Cadeleonian but from Labara. Two years ago in Milmuraille I met a merchant and taught him to play my flute. He paid me well for it.” Mauz winked and Kiram laughed at the crude innuendo.
Though he had no doubt that a Cadeleonian man who found himself attracted to other men would have paid handsomely for the pleasure of Mauz’s body. Kiram could help but wonder if he was supposed to take the silverwork as a testament to Mauz’s skill as a lover or his going rate.
“Has your Javier given you as pretty a gift?” Mauz asked.
Again Kiram laughed. As tall, weathered and tanned as he was, Mauz gave himself away as his mother’s favorite indulged son with a question like that. Kiram worked the clasp back into shape and then cleaned it with a rag and a few drops of oil.
“Javier saved my life. But I can’t say how pretty a gift you would think that was,” Kiram spoke jokingly so he was a little surprised to see Mauz’s face flush.
“I think you are beautiful,” Mauz said. “Obviously, you are the most handsome man here. Why else would I want to fuck you so much?”
Kiram felt his cheeks warming. He’d forgotten how blunt the Irabiim could be.
“If he doesn’t return to you tonight what will you do?” Mauz asked.
“I’ll keep waiting for him,” Kiram replied. “I’ll wait here until he comes.”
“But the caravan will leave in the morning. You can’t mean to remain here! Alone?” Mauz scowled at Kiram with an expression that was as much disbelief as outrage. “You’ll die. If you aren’t devoured by a troll or killed by a shape-changer then the cold alone will take you… That’s madness. How can a pallid Cadeleonian matter so much to you? ”
Kiram didn’t expect Mauz to understand. Two years ago he wouldn’t have understood such a decision himself. But this was where Javier had promised to return to him and so this was where he would wait. As much as he feared lingering in a valley filled with trolls and prowling hunters, he hated the idea of simply abandoning Javier more.
“When I say he saved my life, what do you imagine I mean?” Kiram asked.
Mauz said nothing but kicked at the snow.
“Here.” Kiram handed Mauz his necklace. “The clasp should lock closed now.”
Mauz took the silver chain and sighed. “You aren’t going to let me win you over, are you?”
“It isn’t that you aren’t beautiful or tempting, Mauz, but I gave my heart and my word to Javier. And I wouldn’t be a man worthy of your attention or time if I was willing to break both those simply because I felt lonely and cold.” As he spoke Kiram felt older and perhaps wiser, but Mauz simply regarded him with the vexed expression of a camp dog denied a bone.
Kiram stood and stretched in the faint heat of a shaft of afternoon sunlight. A group of crows briefly called out in alarm as a huge eagle passed overhead, but then quieted as the eagle was lost in the distance.
Mauz remained where he was, standing too near Kiram and looking flushed and uncertain. Clearly, he wasn’t the type to take a refusal at it’s face value and who knew what strange idea he’d dreamed up about the two of them becoming lovers?
So Kiram dropped back down to his makeshift seat of bent fir and tried another tactic.
“Alright Mauz I’ll be honest with you. I come from a very honorable and wealthy Haldiim family and I find it beneath me to simply accept a lover who hasn’t really put out all that much effort.” Kiram wiped the oil from his smallest set of pliers before returning them to his leather tinker’s apron. “ It took Javier months to win even a single kiss from me. Do you really believe I’ll go with you after only two weeks?”
“Months?” Mauz repeated.
Kiram had to fight not to laugh at his horrified expression.
“He offered me jewels and horses and the finest silks,” Kiram went on, though he had to bow his head over his kit of tinkers’ tools not to crack a smile. “I only relented after he mastered a shajdi and was able to bathe me in its glorious light. So really, what are you promising me here?”
“I… You can’t be serious.”
“I assure you that I am. Ask Nakiesh if you don’t believe me. I don’t give the pleasure of my body to just anyone. I would expect that you at least open a shajdi for me.”
Mauz gaped at him dumbfounded. Kiram managed to maintain a serious expression for several moments before he cracked a smile.
“You bastard! You’re toying with me!” Mauz snapped.
“Yes, yes. I’m a monster,” Kiram said, laughing. “But truthfully you’d be wiser to pay a little more attention to Aaqil.”
At this, Mauz scowled. “His mother hardly lets me near him. You’d think I was a wolf from the way she watches me.”
“Solstice is a long, dark night and mothers have to sleep sometime,” Kiram replied.
“And here I thought you were such an upstanding man.” Mauz offered him a rueful smile. “But you’re more than willing to throw sweet little Aaqil into my clutches to save yourself, aren’t you?”
“Indeed I am,” Kiram assured him. “Though somehow I think sweet little Aaqil will fare just fine in your clutches.”
Mauz accepted the compliment with a smile then he gazed up at the pale sky overhead. “I don’t know how your Javier won you but if—when he returns, you should tell him that he has my admiration.”
With that Mauz strode off across the camp to the rope pen, where Aaqil tended his mother’s hairy, hulking oxen. A small triumph but Kiram felt glad for it.
After that, two Irabiim mothers approached Kiram about the lodestone they’d heard him describe. He spent a little time demonstrating the powers of the primitive compass he’d constructed. But soon the sky dimmed and Kiram put his tools and compass away.
The longest night of the year rapidly crept over the leaden sky. Solstice was truly here. Weeks before Javier had joked about the pitiful gift Kiram could expect from him.
“For your pleasure I’m creating a collection of erotic drawings so poorly rendered that I feel certain they will completely shake your belief in my understanding of human anatomy.”
In return Kiram had promised to write Javier a love poem, which he, as a Bahiim could have the honor of burning for the sake of all living creatures.
“Well, that,” he’d said, “or I’ll fashion you the ugliest jewelry that has ever been cast using a cooking fire.”
They’d laughed and made love and in the morning Javier had left.
Now the solstice arrived but Javier hadn’t returned. Kiram studied the rough ring he’d managed to fashion but the sight of it only made his heart sink. He pocketed it.
Steadily the sky darkened and the caravan mothers stoked the embers of their fire to an orange glow while their children and grand children dragged out jars of fermented mares’ milk, dry sausages and brightly-dyed hand drums. Soon the air filled with their quiet songs and laughter as they drank and danced in the soft golden glow. Kiram shared the clutch of star terns that he’d brought down from a migrating flock the week before and several Irabiim women teased him until he allowed them to kohl his eyes like a proper Irabiim. They taught him the Irabiim wolf dance and he spent several hours dancing for the amusement of the dozens of Irabiim men, women, and children who were gathered around the glowing embers wrapped in glossy animal skins. Finally, Kiram learned the words of the Whispered Song of the Long Night from Nakiesh.
Her crows clustered on the overhanging branches of a dark fir tree, watching them all with glittering dark eyes.
The Whispered Song sounded nothing like the merry solstice tunes of his home, though the lyrics shared the common sentiment of a people joined together against darkness and hardship. As Kiram sang the eerie melody, a wave of homesickness rolled over him.
He missed the balmy port city of Anacleto so much and his family even more. If he were at home right now he would have been helping to decorate their house for the bands of singers who would come calling. His lamp would stand among others filled with perfumed oil and lining the windows with the promise of illumination. The aromas of dozens of feast dishes would waft out over him from the kitchen chimney while he and his siblings strung garlands of paper flowers through the bare branches of the fruit trees in the courtyard.
After The Whispered Song ended, everyone in the Irabiim stilled and settled around the fire. A white-haired old man crouched on the fir branches beside Kiram and shared his simple clay cup of fermented mares’s milk.
“You aren’t packed up yet,” the man commented.
Kiram simply shook his head and the man must have read something in his expression because he didn’t press the point any further but instead gifted Kiram with a flask of milk to help keep him warm when he was alone.
“Thank you—” Kiram wasn’t certain if it was the man’s resemblance to his own father or the effects of too much milk but he felt quite moved by the generosity of the gift.
“It’s nothing,” the older fellow replied with a kind smile. “It would have weighted me down to lug it around anyway.”
Already most of the Irabiim had packed their belongings on their covered sleds and gathered their horses and storm oxen in make shift pens. Tomorrow morning their caravan would turn south with their hard won bounty of mountain goat and mink hides as well as nuggets of raw gold.
This sheltered valley had afforded an opportunity for young men and women to flirt and band together to hunt the huge wooly goats that descended from the jagged mountains only at the height of winter to graze on the mossy lichen. But now it was simply too dangerous to stay here any longer. The Irabiim weren’t the only ones lured to these glades by the prospect of winter hunting.
The previous day Kiram had sighted two trolls—great snow-topped walking hillocks—moving with the speed of avalanches down from the mountain cliffs. Where trolls wandered, the wild creatures serving Grimma followed, intent upon hunting the trolls down and enslaving them in their queens’ stony sanctums.
Crouching in the dark, feeling hungry, tired and above all terribly lonely, Kiram realized that he wasn’t able to offer anyone decent company. So he straightened and bid a good night to the eldest mother in the caravan and to well as to Nakiesh and Liahn—the Bahiim who’s wards and incantations kept them hidden from the eyes of witches and wolves alike.
As he withdrew Mauz reached out and touched his shoulder.
“Won’t you be sad all alone?” he asked but none of his earlier flirtation sounded in his voice. He seemed simply concerned.
“I’m not going to be alone,” Kiram pulled a smile. “I’m off to pay some attention to the other fellow in my life.”
Mauz’s pale brows rose in question.
“My horse,” Kiram explained and they both laughed.
Then Kiram made his way to the horse pen where he found Verano and took a little time to make much of the gelding, brushing his bushy winter coat, and bundling him with a relatively clean ox hide blanket.
Overhead the moon rose, and from far away Kiram just caught the cries of wolves.
“That’s just Mauz crying out his desire to Aaqil,” Kiram murmured to Verano. The horse flicked his ears but didn’t seem particularly disturbed. Kiram gazed up at the moon and it struck him that it must feel abandoned. There it hung, alone in the dark, night after night with the sun always so far from it. Just looking up at into its radiance he felt desolate, and not because he was the abandoned one. He was surrounded by people who accepted and sheltered him. It was Javier who he thought of—pale and radiant but utterly alone in the hopeless desolation of the Old Road. It was Javier who was lost in the night, and there was nothing Kiram could do to bring him back.
He remembered the demons that preyed upon loss and guilt in that realm of endless black. It tore at him to think of Javier trapped and dying there. He pressed his face against Verano’s warm neck, and clenched his eyes shut. Kiram wasn’t one to pray but tonight he did.
“Please let him find his way back to me,” Kiram whispered. “Please let him be alright.”
Kiram hung against the big horse and Verano, in his calm manner bowed his head and breathed gently against Kiram. Then the big gelding gave a soft greeting nicker and from a distance another horse answered. Kiram glanced up to see Javier leading Lunaluz slowly across the snow towards their crudely-assembled pen. Even in the dim light Kiram could see that Javier looked exhausted and tattered. He and his horse were spattered with mud and they doubtless reeked. Still, the moment Kiram laid eyes on Javier his heart pounded wildly and he raced out to meet him.
Javier’s dark gaze lifted as Kiram sprinted through the snow towards him and joy shot through Kiram as he saw Javier’s desolate expression suddenly lift into a brilliant smile. They embraced each other with hungry, almost bruising grips and clung together for several moments—simply feeling their reunion, breathing each other in and allowing their bodies to remember the relieving pleasure of their familiarity.
“I missed you,” Javier whispered and his hands dug into Kiram as if he were clinging to him for his life.
Kiram kissed him then, once gently—remembering the feel and taste of him after weeks apart—and then with a driving passion that left them both swaying and breathless.
“I take it you missed me as well?” A slow, smug smile curved Javier’s lips.
“Like a drunk misses his ruin,” Kiram replied.
Javier gave a soft laugh at that but something strangely sorrowful seemed to linger in his expression. Kiram almost asked what was wrong, but Javier stepped back from him.
“Help me with Lunaluz, will you?”
“Of course.” Kiram took Lunaluz’s reins from Javier and after greeting the stallion led him to where Verano awaited him. Javier pulled the saddle, blanket and bags from Lunaluz and Kiram noted that the stallion, like Javier had lost weight. Kiram fetched oatseed and thick fistfuls of lichen for Lunaluz and when he returned he found that Javier had brushed the stallion down and had dug wide scrape through the snow with his gaunt bare hands to expose the lichen and winterweed growing beneath. Lunaluz grazed hungrily. Verano nibbled a few strands of the winterweed and then simply stood near Lunaluz, blocking the worst the wind, though whether that was by design or accident Kiram didn’t know.
“There’s goat stew, sausages and fermented milk by the fire,” Kiram offered Javier.
Javier studied the rest of the gathered caravan with a slight frown. A melodic howl went up from the gathered singers only to be broken by giddy laughter.
“Did someone get married?”
“No,” Kiram said, annoyed. Then he recalled the timeless quality of traveling the Old Road. “It’s solstice. You’ve been gone more than a fortnight.” He did his best to keep the anger from sounding in his voice, but the words still came out too crisply.
How strange that only after he knew Javier was alive and safe could he now acknowledge the frustration and anger that powerless anxiety had wrought in him.
“I didn’t think it had been so long,” Javier said.
“Nakiesh and Liahn returned weeks ago,” Kiram told him. “Since then I haven’t known if you were alive or…” Kiram didn’t want to go on. He didn’t want to think about how scared he’d been for Javier beneath the bravado he’d maintained in the face of Mauz’s flirtations and old women’s pitying glances.
Javier wrapped his arms around Kiram and Kiram allowed himself to be pulled close once again.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“But why did you go?” Kiram asked. “Where did you go?’
“Is that bower of fir branches we built still standing?”
Kiram realized at once that Javier needed to rest and wanted to be alone with him. “It’s still there. Come on.”
Javier swung his saddlebags over his shoulder and then followed Kiram to the snow-packed, pine-scented bower. They both fit so long as they hunched close, or slept curled together with their belongings packed up against the fragrant evergreen walls. Kiram had even managed to angle two polished metal plates so that they caught the faint moonlight and threw a pale beam into the dark confines.
“Here.” Javier pushed the saddlebags to Kiram and then stretched out on the bedding of reindeer and ox hides.
Kiram opened the bags and to his shock discovered a scroll of fine writing paper, two tins containing screws, bolts, pins and spooled wire, a sachet of his mother’s taffy and an assortment of bright, fragrant citrus fruit. But most startling of all were the letters. There wasn’t light enough to read them but Kiram recognized not only his mother’s and brother’s handwriting but Nestor’s square script as well.
“You went to Anacleto?” Kiram asked in wonder.
“The Sagrada Academy and then Anacleto.” Javier dug into the pocket of his long dark coat and held something small and golden out to Kiram. He took it and realized at once that it was a gold figurine of a horse.
“Fedeles wanted you to have it and he wanted me to assure you that Firaj is well… Actually, he might be a little bit fat but he’s certainly happy.”
Kiram felt almost too stunned to register Javier’s comment. He held the figurine and the metal grew warm in his hand. He’d missed his home so badly, why hadn’t Javier thought to take him with him when he’d decided to go?
“Is he… How is he?” Kiram managed to get out at last.
“Shockingly erudite when he wants to be.” Javier smiled. “I’d almost forgotten how clever he was.”
“Third year, taking his responsibilities as an upperclassman very seriously.” Again Javier flashed a smile but it slipped away an instant later. “Elezar didn’t return to the academy. But according to Nestor he’s won two duels in the capitol and apprehended a highwayman as well.”
Somehow Kiram wasn’t surprised.
“All’s well,” Javier assured him. “The letters are full of details… though it might amuse you to know that your brother Majdi not only popped me in the face the minute he recognized me but demanded to know what I’d done to you and then after all that informed me that he’d put Atreau ashore in the Salt Islands but decided to keep Morisio.”
“Wait. Why did Majdi punch you?”
Javier shot him a glance as if he couldn’t imagine how Kiram could not know the answer to that.
“Because I stole you away from your friends and family not to live as a nobleman but like the lowest peasant?” Javier offered. “Because there’s a price on my head and so you’ve been pursued by bounty hunters, mercenaries and the royal bishop’s men-at-arms—”
“Yes, but I’m a fugitive in my own right as well, thank you very much,” Kiram replied.
Oddly, Javier met his gaze with a look that seemed almost physically pained.
“But you aren’t,” Javier said very softly. “I’d been pondering the Common Laws and Lords Laws for a while and I realized that you might not be wanted. Unlike me, you aren’t a heretic because you were born into the Bahiim religion and you hail from Anacleto—”
“I killed several of the royal bishop’s men,” Kiram pointed out. In fact he’d struck down more with his bow and arrows than either Javier or Elezar.
“But that was in my service,” Javier replied. “You, Elezar, Nestor, Atreau and Morisio were all acting in my service. If you cast your mind back, you’ll recall that I was a duke and your upperclassmen. Legally, I was responsible.”
“So…” Kiram didn’t go on.
Javier looked grim despite his attempt to smile.
“So, I can take you home. That’s what I went back to Cadeleon to find out. I’m still a wanted man but you aren’t. You don’t have to live like this.” Javier gestured out at the field of snow and dark trees.
For just and instant, joy ignited within Kiram.
Home. He could just go home…
And then he realized the cause of Javier’s misery. Javier could take him back but he couldn’t stay there with him. Cadeleon would simply be too dangerous for Javier.
“No,” Kiram said. “I already made this choice.”
“But that was before you knew—before either of us really knew what it would be like to live as hunted men in the wilds of the north. If you’d known then how cold and hard it would be…” Javier’s voice failed and he hid his eyes beneath his hand. “There’s nothing I can offer you in this life, Kiram. Not comfort, not wealth, not even a decent bed to lay down in.”
That was all true and yet, like the threat of trolls or the promise of Mauz’s company, it didn’t matter.
Kiram reached out and took Javier’s hand. Javier’s dark eyes gleamed like polished jet. Kiram pushed the saddlebags aside and stretched out beside Javier.
“It’s been harder than I could have imagined and I do miss my home and family,” Kiram admitted. “But I wouldn’t trade my life with you for all the candy and comfortable beds in the world. I love being with you. And as hard as this existence is, it’s shown me that I’m stronger and tougher and more resilient than I thought. And I’ve discovered that you are even more upstanding, brave, and honorable than I thought you were when I first fell in love with you.”
Javier gazed at him, studying him for a long while. “I’m not brave. I could hardly bring myself to tell you the truth.”
“But you did,” Kiram replied. “And I’m staying with you.”
The radiance in Javier’s smile made Kiram think for an instant that he’d opened the shajdi, but then he realized that the light in Javier’s face was pure joy.
“Thank you,” Javier said. “I couldn’t have hoped for a better solstice gift.”
Considering how far Javier had traveled and at what cost to his own strength just for Kiram’s sake, it seemed a very small gift. And yet as Javier pulled him into his arms Kiram felt that it was one he couldn’t have been gladder to give.
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