The 'aiei of Snow
The snowstorm crawled down from the mountain with a force I hadn't seen in many years. I shuddered as the flakes struck my parched lips, tasting the world as it had been seventy winters earlier. It was the world of my father, the time when I first discovered the power of magic, and the nature of loss.
Little Achlie, son of my son Piath, crouched beside me. His dark eyes shone wet and glassy. He'd been crying.
"It tastes bitter," he sobbed. "It tastes. . . sad."
"I nodded, remembering the first time I'd tasted the 'aiei that makes the world.
I'd been eight, a slight boy for my age. My father sat with his back to the village, a sliver of steel held tightly across his lap. I didn't let him see I'd been crying as I threw myself silently onto the wide log beside him, but he knew anyway.
"What troubles you?" His wrinkled nut-brown face was solemn as he caught my eye, as if to tell me this would be a conversation between two men, not father and son. It was the first time he'd treated me as an equal, and the shame colored my cheeks. Grown men didn't cry about childish things.
I hesitated, unsure the problems appearing so large to my young mind would even be worth his notice. The way he viewed me was every bit as important as how I viewed myself. Did I really wish to risk losing his respect over a beating and a game of find the seeker?
"A couple of the boys said I cheated," I blurted out suddenly, my eyes afraid to meet his.
Instead, I watched his strong hands as he smashed a delicate shaft of iron against a rasp of blackened steel. A curl of metal peeled away, falling into the small pile already littering the pine needles at his feet. Then he struck again, teasing the shapeless iron into a fine point.
My father had taken up the hammer and become my people's smith only two summers earlier. The old iron master had fallen ill, dying quickly. Most in the village were sure my father hadn't the time necessary to learn the techniques, but he'd excelled, rapidly achieving the old master's level of competence. It was as if my father had somehow known the man would die.
"And you did not cheat?" His hands momentarily stopped their filing to brush fine grey powder from his leather apron. "You just knew where the boy had hidden himself?"
His insight startled me. It was as if he'd prepared for this conversation even before I'd dumped my small frame onto the log beside him.
He sighed, setting the iron and rasp aside, rising slowly to his feet among a shower of metal shavings and exclamations of pain at growing old, and draped the leather swatch onto the worn patch of log where he'd been sitting. He gestured for me to stand as well.
"Tell me what you see, Tokori?" he asked, using the nickname I'd acquired as a baby because of my wide-eyed owlish stare of wonder at the world. It was an elfish word, and as such it held a measure of wonder in itself. I knew he meant to put me at ease, but his concern made me feel as if I were somehow smaller. I was no longer a man in his eyes. I was the owl boy, Tokori. "What do you see of the greater world around you?"
Scattered birches thrust yellowed fingers into a sky so blue it was as if the ocean had been painted overhead. Maples flared with the last fires of their summer lives as fitful shadows chased soft breezes across the tall grass, like invisible rabbits playing.
Beauty filled the landscape to bursting, but typical of all boys everywhere I ignored the wonders around me and replied merely, "Trees."
"Open your eyes and see the life that's inside everything, from the worms under the dirt to the eagles high in the heavens. The 'aiei of creation fills the air like thick smoke." He sounded displeased, as if I'd failed some test.
I glanced about me, searching the trees and sky for clues, but found nothing. 'aiei was for children, for bedtime stories around the fire. The elves had taken the 'aiei with them when humanity forced them from the world. It was nothing but a word now, having no substance. In those days, I was both too old and too young for magic.
I shrugged. A flush of warmth crossed my features. "I'm sorry, father. I don't know what you expect from me."
He glanced down. His small dark eyes shone like freshly chipped flint, hard and penetrating. I felt him peering through me, searching beneath my skin to spy out the secrets of my soul.
"What were you doing when you first realized where the other boys were hiding?" he asked finally, looking away, releasing me from the crushing weight of his stare.
Already, it seemed foolish to have come whining to my father over it. I'd joined a group of older boys who'd been released from their morning chores, and together we played a game of hunting and seeking. One boy would be chosen to track the others, to flush them from their roosts, perches, burrows, or dens. It was a game I'd played many times, enjoying the hunt, delighting in the pleasure of predator versus prey.
Ishki, a boy three summers older than I, tall and strong and already growing hair in places that marked him as a man, had challenged me. He claimed the ability to evade any seeker; having both a superior den in which to hide, as well as a foolproof manner of escape should he be found out. Ever boastful, in the ways of all boys, I said I could find him easily. I hadn't really believed it, but boys have trouble keeping their mouths shut at any age. He dared me in front of others, and I couldn't refuse. So I closed my eyes, leaning into the moss-covered trunk of a great maple, and began to count.
As my face pressed against the tepid dampness, and I smelled the woody tang of the moss, I knew. I could taste the boy's secret. I even touched my tongue to the moist cushion of bark, feeling the cool beads of trapped stagnant water clinging within the fibrous strands. The image of Ishki's hiding place was like a drawing in colored liquids, a moment in time, almost frozen, oozing like honey through my mind.
"It was beneath the unmarried woman's longhouse," I said as I told my father the tale. "It was as plain to me as the sun sparkling on that ribbon of stream over there. So I cornered him without hesitation."
"And his egress?" my father asked. "Did he escape?"
"No. I'd asked Mikala to pretend to find the front of his hole, and she enlisted a group of the women to shout curses and describe what they would do to any man unlucky or stupid enough to be in such a place."
My father smiled a little when I mentioned Mikala. He hadn't thought I liked her, and I didn't really, not then, but she would be my wife by arrangement in the coming years.
"And you were waiting for him as he emerged from his hiding place?"
"I tapped him the moment his head became visible above the bend in the reeds concealing his tunnel. He shrieked like an infant. I suppose he thought I was one of the unmarried women, come to do the horrible things they'd promised."
My father nodded gravely. "We cannot fault him for his fear of angry women. I would not want to tangle with such creatures myself."
He said it with such a straight face that I burst out laughing. He did the same soon after, unable to keep his composure. I felt suddenly warm inside. We'd shared a moment only two men could share.
He sobered, one last chuckle escaping his thin dark lips. "Then he beat you?"
I nodded. "Him, and Tollok, and Knon."
"You fought back?"
I gave him a withering look and made a noise. It was an expression of disapproval that I wouldn't have used on my father before that day.
"I did not mean offense, my son," he said. "You've clearly been in a fight."
I peered down. My rough, woven-grass tunic was torn and matted with mud. My upper lip and right temple throbbed, bruised and tender.
"Follow me," he said.
We walked to the muddy edge of the stream in silence. My father bent, searching the moist gravel. His long fingers darted over small pebbles, pressing some with hesitation, as if expecting them to come alive under his touch. Finally, he selected two, clutching one in each hand.
"Take this one," he said, handing me the rounded black lump. It felt dry and warm in my palm.
"What do you feel?" my father asked.
I told him I felt like throwing it in the water just to see it splash. He smiled. "That only means you're a boy."
He handed me the other stone. It glistened with moisture, still wet from the riverbank. I stared at it, finding no urge to throw it away. Instead, I raised it to my lips and tasted it.
The moment the pebble touched my tongue I gasped in surprise. It felt cold, far colder than it should have. I glanced up. The sky was gone, replaced by an arching expanse of grey ice shot through with veins of light blue the color of a robin's egg. I couldn't breathe. The ice crushed me, suffocating and endless.
Then I blinked, and it vanished.
My father hadn't moved. The stream still gurgled, rushing on its indirect path to the south, sunlit and warm. Breezes still tossed clusters of reeds back and forth in a slow dance, shaking the ochre carpet into animation. The vision had been so vivid, so powerful, that I suddenly believed my childish fears and superstitions.
"What did you do, father?" I trembled in the remembered chill.
"I merely handed you two pebbles. What happened after that came from within you?"
"What did happen?"
"'aiei," he said. "What the elves called magic."
"Is there really magic in the rocks?" I fought for breath. There was so much I'd taken as fantasy, so much I didn't understand.
"The rocks hold a tiny share," he said. "But living things possess greater potential."
He knelt, sitting on his haunches. I did the same, expecting a long explanation. I thought magic was just a story for the very young or a comfort for the very old. I thought it no longer existed. I'd been wrong.
"If the 'aiei still fills all things, then how is it I only know of it from songs and fairytales?"
"The gift is rare. Only a few have the ability to sense the 'aiei of existence," he said. "It may be that we have a touch of the folk in us. Your grandfather could hear the wind whispering the thoughts of eagles. The breezes spoke to him, and told him when the rain would come, or when a herd of elk might follow the paths near the winter lodge.
"My gift is more modest. I see the inner lives of the stones. I feel their desires." He glanced at me as he spoke, expecting me to laugh. I might have chuckled had I not felt the 'aiei for myself, sensed its depth and power.
This revelation frightened me. How would being able to manipulate the waters help me as I made my way through life? Would it find food for my family? Could I take it to Faulindium, the great walled city on the eastern shore, and become a knight?
I asked my father these things.
"I do not know." His eyes took on a faraway look, as if he saw something I couldn't.
"When the stones told me Timon the iron master would die, and that I must continue his work, I wavered. It wasn't my desire. Why should I obey the 'aiei? Then a vision came, the first and only I've ever had. I not only saw, but felt, our village dying. Our numbers grew thin with hunger and disease. Your mother lay dead, discarded like rubbish in the snow, her eyes sunken and dull."
I fidgeted at the thought of harm coming to my mother. He noticed my distress, nodding in understanding. Then he put an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close.
"I picked up the blacksmith's hammer the very next day," he said. "And the rocks guided my hands, instructing me in ways Timon never could. I can squeeze steel from stone like water from a sponge. I shape it according to its whim, listening all the while to the voices directing me, taking my hands where they will."
I finally understood my father at that moment. His quiet patience and resigned sense of purpose stilled me. A pebble of shining metal had decided his life. He'd become a slave to rocks for the sake of his village, and for his family. I loved him more deeply for that.
He leaned forward, dipping his right hand into the fast-flowing water at the edge of the stream.
"I can hear a thousand whispers in the sand carried by this water," my father said. "Each voice is a song, poetry, a chorus of history. If I concentrate I can make out individual tones."
He shook his head as if clearing his mind of the voices only he could hear.
"And you? What does the water tell you, my son?"
Nervously, I reached in and brought a handful of cold clear water to my lips. It had the slight tang river water gets near the end of summer when the leaves begin dying, but otherwise, I tasted nothing.
"This stream is born in the mountains far to the north, in the land once inhabited by giants." My father's gaze met mine as he continued to speak. "It meets many other rivers as it finds its way to the forest where the colossal redwoods grow and the dwarves used to play. It travels further than any man can walk, and with it comes the 'aiei of the earth, the wind, and all living things. When you are ready, my son, you will see this."
"But not now?"
"No." He turned away. "The magic is new to you, and it will come and go as it pleases."
I dipped my fingers once more. The icy chill crawled up my arm, and with it the sensation of movement. The gravel bottom seemed to recede, and I slid beneath the waters. I screamed. Frigid liquid burned my throat, and I saw my father beneath me, sinking into the black depths.
I fell back, and found myself on shore once more. My father stood beside me. His features held concern.
I gasped, my heart pounding. "No, nothing."
I did not want him to know I'd seen his death.
I could smell the rain, hanging on the air like coarsely ground pepper, spicy and invasive. My father told me it was neneki, the smell lightning makes as it slashes its way through the cloudy sky, but I knew it wasn't. Lightning smelled flat and metallic. This was something very different. It had range and depth. The rain's odor held a thousand different moments all tumbled together.
"'aiei," I whispered, remembering our conversation by the stream a few weeks earlier. I'd put the final prophetic vision of his death from my mind by then, pretending it had never happened.
My father glanced up from the thin strip of black iron he'd been polishing with a rough leather cloth, and flicked his head in the direction of the bachelor's house. I understood, saying nothing more about magic. Instead, I spoke of my excitement. We'd be hunting together soon.
He smiled warmly, and then cinched both the cloth and the metal around a wooden shaft held tightly between his bare knees. A thin naked boy younger than myself, his arms, face, and chest smeared with ash and pitch, jumped forward. My father held out the stick, and the boy clutched it against his small body as if he'd just been given a great gift.
"This will need the hot resin, just like I showed you, Moahb," my father instructed the boy. "I will check it when I return."
My father ran a hand through Moahb's shaggy hair, and gave him a playful tap on the behind as the boy scrambled away. I felt jealous at the way my father treated his apprentice. They spent much time together, sharing stories and making memories forever hidden from me. My father treated him as a son, and I both envied and resented that bond.
"Will we go now?" I asked, perhaps a bit too loudly. I was eager to separate my father from my rival.
"The first rule of a hunter is patience, my son," he said. Then he laughed when he noticed my stricken look. "Come."
I leapt from my crouch on the woven reed mat carpeting the entrance to the blacksmith's house, and snatched my leather sack. It contained dried fish wrapped in oiled leaves, tinder and flint for making fire, and a small bladder full of drinking water.
We laughed as we trekked through the forest, kicking drifts of leaves the color of the setting sun. Clouds rolled in quickly as we made our way from the village clearing at the edge of the valley up into the hills. Rain fell timidly in soft droplets that beaded and trickled off our grease-smeared jerkins.
My father told tales as we marched, recounting the past. His stories were invariably of the eidder days, and they portrayed great adventures involving magical creatures. He chronicled the races of men who were not human, and gave fanciful accounts of the power of 'aiei. These stories were from a time long before the days of his father's father.
One tale involved the expulsion of the elves, and how a single champion had bested their mighty armies. I listened attentively. These would be the stories I'd tell to my own children, and they to their grandchildren.
Finally, my father pointed to an overhanging lump of lichen-covered granite, and I dropped my pack onto the relative dryness beneath.
We ate cold fish and nuts in companionable silence, each lost in our own thoughts. My father seemed happier than he'd been for a long time. Part of me knew it was the hunt, but inside I liked to think his happiness stemmed from the bond we were forming, the time we'd share. After all, what could be more rewarding than a father spending time with his only son?
We didn't try to light a fire that night. The wind had increased, sending intermittent rain-laden gusts into our cleft, and any attempt at a flame would surely have led to failure.
We slept within a crook of rock that looked as if it'd been split by a giant axe, cleaved neatly into two sections. My father held me as we huddled in the darkness, sharing our warmth. The rain outside fell like spittle from an old woman's lips, fitfully, in great gobs, and then suddenly switching to miniscule sprays and jets of icy fluid. It was still one of the happiest times I could remember.
I awoke once in the middle of the night with an intense feeling of dread, and thought I heard voices. Soft murmurs sang to me as I struggled against slumber, gurgling with the patter of the rain. I turned to my father, but he'd vanished.
In my dream, I stepped into the darkness. My unease carried me down into the channel cut by a slow-moving stream. I could see nothing.
"Father?" My teeth chattered from the cold as my nervousness increased. Above me, the rain ignited individual drops, and they glowed with a faint blue luminescence. The stream dribbled like tar at my feet. My breath came in ragged sobs as I fell in the mud, knowing what I'd find.
My father lay face down in the frigid water. His prone body cast no shadow in the wan cobalt light. I howled as I pulled him onto the bank, his body stiff, his eyes clouded and dull. The water boiled where it touched me, fleeing from my pain as I struggled to hold my father close.
The stream exploded. Rain pressed down in torrents as my anguish fueled the maelstrom. Waves tore over the rocks beside me, breaking in churning sheets. A whirlpool formed a cocoon around my father's lifeless body. Cherry red sparks ripped through the azure glow, landing like hot ash on my father's forehead, congealing against his pale skin. It covered his face like a mask.
"Please don't leave me." I shrieked at the body, attempting by sheer volume to move him. His lips bubbled, mimicked my words.
His body twitched. Cold fingers grasped me, and I collapsed.
When I awoke, the sun had risen. The clouded sky churned, restless and animated, the color of ashes from a dead campfire. My father perched on a boulder nearby. He shifted when I opened my eyes.
"You slept poorly, little Tokori. Does the magic haunt you?" His tight features appeared fluid. His dark face rippled. My distress must have been visible, because he climbed down and sat beside me in the sand. A patina of sweat covered his naked body, although a cool breeze churned from the mountains.
"I thought you were dead." I tried to keep my voice neutral, but memories of the previous night caused me to falter. The air seemed to thicken. Something inside me screamed it was true. He would die soon.
I stared at him, hoping for a release from my nightmare. None came. I could read the answer in his eyes, once flinty and dark, now watery blue. I licked my lips, my mouth suddenly dry. I wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn't come. Tightness in my chest tugged me forward into his arms. His touch chilled me, and I had a vision of stars, endless bleak darkness. When I pulled back, it was as if a piece of my soul clung to him.
"We all die. It is the way of things." He caressed me, his fingers burning where they touched.
"No!" I scrambled away, my chest heaving, my breath exploding from my lips like steam.
He hesitated. Anguish made his face sag. His shoulders slumped, and he seemed to melt as he turned from me.
We sat that way through most of the bleak morning. I felt lost in troubled thoughts, my father within an arm's reach of me, but already gone. The 'aiei seemed more a curse now than ever.
"Magic can feel like a cruel master," he whispered as if reading my thoughts. "But it has the power to transcend this time, and this world."
"I don't understand."
"You will." He tussled my hair, and it was as if he shook the troubling thoughts from my head.
The grey sky churned, restless and animated, the color of ashes from a dead campfire. My heart had lightened. My father seemed more alive than I could ever remember, his step nimble, his eyes sharp as we stalked a red fox through the heavy blanket of leaves.
We'd spotted the animal's scat by an unused trail not far from where we'd spent our night. The dung smelled pungent and acidic, with overtones reminiscent of acorns. The odor was a clear sign it had been deposited very recently, so the animal was still nearby.
We scouted for traces, and found them a short distance to the north.
I crept up on the animal's den from downwind, deliberately sowing my scent and a fair amount of noise. My father waited with a bow and a single slender arrow tipped with black steel.
"Come on out, come out!" I cupped my hands, hollering and thumping the earth with my feet.
The fox, as if obeying my command, flew from its borough and directly across my father's path. My father struck. The arrow arced from his bow. The fox seemed to hesitate. Its small cinnamon-colored ears twitched. Its body shivered. Then it reversed direction, hopping up to meet the deadly projectile.
And it died.
My father reached it first. The projectile had caught the creature beneath its forelimbs, killing it quickly, painting its fur in a brighter shade of crimson.
"You didn't aim correctly." I kneeled down beside him. "If the fox hadn't veered you would've missed."
"I know," he replied. "The steel whispered to me in the final moment. I listened."
"'aiei?" I whispered as if the forest had ears.
"'aiei." He nodded.
"Speaking about magic as if it were such a normal part of the world around us is unsettling," I said. "I don't know if I can get used to it."
"It was the same for me at your age." He began to dress the kill. His fingers dipped deeply into the pelt, and then he hesitated.
"There's much of the earth in all living things. Your grandfather spoke about the 'aiei in life's very breath. " My father tapped his chest. "He could comprehend the wind inside."
"I can feel the pull of muscles and bone, the whisper of iron within the blood," he continued. "It is the most powerful sensation when felt through the newly killed. The 'aiei of life is strong, very strong."
He held the pelt open, exposing raw flesh and bright organs. He told me to dip my finger in the blood. I did. Then he told me to taste it. I hesitated. Then, slowly, I brought my finger up and touched it to my tongue.
. . .I push through a small hole smelling of dirt and musty leaves, a rat's plump warm body somewhere just ahead. My fur bristles and contracts, letting me feel the tunnel walls as I race ahead. My snout twitches, and I smell the delicious stench of terror coming from the darkness. . .
. . .I'm rolling on my back. The tall grass caresses my fur as the bright sunshine warms my belly. Suddenly, a shadow cuts across the sun, and my brothers are on top of me. The pile shifts from one to the other as we play and roll across the verdant hillside. . .
. . .I'm bounding through an endless field of poppies, my ears just tickling the pollen-laden bulbs. Up ahead I smell her. She's ready, signaling with a yipping pant that means she knows I'm approaching. . .
I felt as if it had lasted for years, but when the impressions ceased my father had not moved, his fingers still wet with blood. The rain had started again, light flecks against my cheeks to hide my tears. I felt sick.
I felt the same as when I'd dreamed of my father's death.
"I'll never hunt fox again!" I cried. "I'll never hunt anything."
"That will pass," my father said. The 'aiei of blood is too strong, but it will fade as all things must.
And it did grow fainter. The sensations and emotions so unbearable passed, dribbled like warm water through my fingers. I was able to eat some of the meat my father had roasted on skewers over our modest fire, chewing the tender chunks slowly and deliberately as if they were made of thick leather. My soul remained disturbed, rebelling.
"Is this a curse? Did the elves leave their 'aiei behind to punish us?" My thoughts spilled out as we sat quietly by the fire.
"The magic existed long before the war, long before the folk were defeated and sent to whatever realm they now occupy."
"But I thought they were the magical ones," I said. "All the stories, all the songs, say elfish magic could move mountains and draw the stars to the ground."
"What the elves did with the 'aiei made them different," he said. "Yes, they could bend it to their will and make it obey their commands, but the 'aiei belongs to all things."
I tossed a twig into the fire, watching the sparks dance as they climbed into the heavens. It reminded me of a very old song recounting the day of defeat, the eidder day, when the elves were banished from the world of men.
Flames gone all wrong
Seeds scattered in storm
They vanish on high
Like sparks against the sky
"So men cannot command the 'aiei?"
My father nodded. "Magic has its own business in this world. We interact with it, but only on terms it dictates. It is not for us to know more."
"But what good is it?"
"'aiei brought me to the iron. Without that. . ."
Without a blacksmith, there'd be no new blades. The hunters would have to use dull weapons, or craft cruder versions for themselves. The village would grow hungry, as in my father's vision.
"Will the magic demand I take up the hammer and anvil?" I asked, selfish in my youth. I didn't want to give up the thrill of the chase, or the exhilaration that comes from the hunt. I wanted to travel, to see the great cities by the shore. I wanted to meet royalty, to see the spires of the rose-colored castle where the queen held court and men from lands I've never even dreamt of paid homage. My village was home. It was all I've ever known, but still, I wanted more.
I remembered my father's face as we stalked the fox, the glint of pure joy in his dark eyes. I hadn't seen him that happy since he first struck steel, and somehow I knew I'd never see him that happy again. The knowledge felt like a boulder on my chest.
"No," my father replied. "That is why I teach little Moahb to carry the hammer. The 'aiei has greater things in mind for you."
I frowned at the mention of my father's apprentice. He chuckled, reaching over to stroke my hair.
"Fear not," he laughed. "I will always have just one son, my little Tokori. Remember, I will always love you. The magic links us. I will always be with you in the 'aiei."
With that, he would speak no more. He put his arm around me and we sat watching the fire until darkness came. We slept under the sky, warmed by the glowing coals. The clouds parted sometime during the night, revealing a multitude of stars so sharp they almost seemed within reach.
I had no further dreams of his death.
An icy spray fell from the sky a few days after I'd returned from the hunting trip. The rain struck me intermittently with needle sharp jabs as I helped haul woven grass baskets of pecans and walnuts from the village houses to the winter storage. It was work for all. I participated gladly, happy to be with my friends.
Ishki, the boy who'd beaten me some weeks earlier but who was now my friend, stood beside me. Mikala, my someday wife, crouched between us. The way Ishki stared at the girl made me uneasy, and I felt we might not remain friends for very much longer.
I carried the rear pole of a basket slung between Ishki and myself, and I struggled with the weight. Ishki made his end seem light, most likely to impress Mikala. My growl of jealousy was easily hidden within my panting gasps as we maneuvered over the rough ground up to the cavern entrance.
A raindrop struck my face. Then, suddenly. . .
. . .I was Ishki, a few years younger; alone, afraid, and crying over a fire that had killed both my parents and left me to the care of myself. . .
"Keep moving," Ishki hollered, prodding me back into myself. I took a step forward.
. . .And I was the old blacksmith, Timon, hammering a glob of red hot iron to glassy perfection. . .
. . .Then Nohn, the hunter who lived alone far from the village, as I gutted a fresh-killed black bear, blood spilling in great gouts as steam rose into the morning sky. . .
"What's wrong with you?" Mikala asked.
"N-Nothing." I shook off the raindrops, and the unsettling image . . .a young woman who looked just like the midwife Eilssa, naked, howling at a gigantic summer moon. . .
The sensations continued, each impressing a moment or two of the lives of the people around me. Interspaced, were flashes where I felt heavy, rooted, a dull thing with no thoughts other than an endless yearning for the sky. Once, I was a fox again, and I thought I'd explode into tears.
I endured these assaults. My outward attitude alternated between distraction, hysteria, and restlessness.
An old woman approached. She told me to go away. It was Eilssa, although much more ancient. I had not recognized her with her clothing on.
I stumbled through the trail back to the village in the direction of the blacksmith's house, hoping to find my father. I needed reassurance.
Icy rain had turned to snow, falling in fat little bundles that hit the ground like wet seagull turds. Some of the flakes struck me with no effect, frigid water melting harmlessly against my skin. Others crashed into me with the force of foreign memories, violating my mind, and imposing thoughts that were not my own.
With each strike, it became more bearable. I didn't stumble and fall when I learned the cruel bully everyone called Gol secretly wished he'd not been born a man. I simply pushed it away.
I suddenly felt I could push all those moments past the intensity of the present and into the back of my mind. Once behind me, they became only memories, and I could view them with a measure of detachment. Some were distressing, brutal, and perverse in that they revealed secrets about members of my village I didn't want to know. Others were interesting, and I learned several skills within the space of a single thought that I'd never hoped to master.
One snowflake touched my lips, a kiss of frost that brimmed with the 'aiei. I didn't realize it at first, but one of my own memories had returned, borne on the western wind, ripe with magic.
. . .My father stood before me, that hopeful, happy expression on his face. . .
I reached out to him, but found myself rolling down a short ledge not far from the river.
When I finally arrived at the blacksmith's house, I found Moahb standing over my father's body. My father had died suddenly, rising from his chores and walking slowly towards the river before he collapsed. Moahb had come upon him as he lay sprawled against a boulder, cold, soaked through with the rain. It appeared as though he'd embraced the stone in his last moments.
Together, we brought him up to the master's house where I laid him out and covered him with blankets. Moahb wept copiously, but I did not cry. I'd known my father would die since the night of our hunting trip, and thinking back on his comments of that night, I believed he knew it as well. I don't think he wanted that knowledge to spoil our last moments together.
I held Moahb a while, feeling his small frame shake against me as he expressed his sorrow. The shock hadn't reached me yet. I thought it might never come. My quick acceptance might be a tangible benefit of the 'aiei.
The whole of that last time with my father, our final and most meaningful bonding, flashed through me with the power and intensity of lightning. Then it faded in a backwash of diffuse light against snow, and I was no longer a boy.
Time hadn't passed. The mountains loomed behind my tired and aching body. I sat on a fallen log just as my father had at the beginning of that fateful day when he'd first shown me the power of magic, a dollop of frost resting on my tongue. Little Achlie crouched beside me. He hadn't stirred. His eyes still glittered like polished stones, like chunks of dark metal touched by my father's 'aiei.
An ice crystal struck my face. I saw my father again.
. . . He smiled at me, reaching out to stroke my cheek. He smiled at me from a memory found in a snowflake, from the 'aiei of winter. . .
I clenched my eyes shut, my hand tight on Achlie's shoulder, and held onto that image. I smiled back as I caught the twinkle in my father's dark eyes, so much like the forged plates of obsidian metal he worked so often. And, yes, I cried a little.