A Heartless Winter

Author’s note: And here it is, the first part of my creative writing experiment. With temperatures as high as they are, this was really difficult to write. But this might help you to feel cooler, if nothing else. Midsummer was a couple of days ago, so ‘Winter is coming’, after all. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this, I’d really appreciate your feedback in the comments. But please be honest and/or offer constructive advice as to what I can improve on. Best wishes, SigmaTheta

She stared into the darkness. Kathleen had hoped to finally see something tonight, even if it was just a single torch coming up the long path through the forest, that led up to the town gate of Langdale. But instead, all she could see were the spruce trees which even overgrew Langdales walls and the darkness of the forest at night. Kathleen was standing on a roofed platform right above the gates, wrapped tight in her crimson coat and a fur overcoat to protect herself from the cold. She had magically heatened the fires in the braziers that surrounded her, but even so the icy wind gave her a chill.

It had been the harshest winter Kathleen could remember and the town’s supplies were very nearly exhausted. Without rationing, the town would be starving in a weeks time, it was said. It had always been like that, but in the years past, Langdale had been reliably supplied with food. This year however, the town’s harvest was even less fruitful than usual and the one delivery they had received so far also failed to meet their expectations. The weather is harsher everywhere, I suppose, Kathleen thought to herself as she squeezed her gloved hands in her armpits to keep them warm. There should have been another delivery by now and it being overdue did not help the morale in town.

After she had waited a while longer, Kathleen lost hope to see an arrival today. She stepped out from under the roof and began to climb down the ladder. The snow had already begun to settle on her fur coat by the time she reached the ground. It crunched under her feet as she made her way along the deserted main road, past the stables, a forge and people’s homes. The town’s buildings were made of massive spruce logs resting on a stone foundation and in most cases, a small set of stairs led up to the front door. On both sides of the road, magical lanterns bathed their surroundings in a warm golden light.

Kathleen kept walking along the road towards the central plaza on which the town hall stood in the middle of a ring road with wide streets leading in all four directions. It was built in the same style as the other buildings but beyond that it was richly decorated with banners and a more elaborate facade. What made the town hall so easily recognizable was the clock tower that had been constructed on top of it.

But it was not the building Kathleen was heading towards and so she walked around the town hall. Her destination, the Arcane Academy, came into view on the other side of the town hall. As she approached the building, Kathleen once again admired the ornaments on its facade and the delicate carvings in the front doors. There were statues of snow foxes to both sides of the doors, their tails ablaze as glowing white flames.

Kathleen opened the doors and went inside. The wind swept some of the snow in with her, but the heat took care of it soon enough. The two fireplaces at either side of the room filled it with the noise of crackling wood and the heat of the flames, so Kathleen hasted to remove the gloves and the fur coat and hang them on the rack to her right. The only pieces of furniture in the room were the benches in each corner and in front of the fireplaces. There was a big, round crimson carpet in the middle of the room. Opposite the front door, two stairs led to the upper floors but between them, a pedestal exhibited the Academy’s most valuable possession, an evenly-shaped crystal levitating over a stone pillar. Kathleen always thought it was glowing but she wasn’t sure if she was just imagining it. But even from the middle of the room, where she was now standing, she could sense the energy the crystal held within. She kept her eye on the gem as she slowly approached it, yet she never dared to get closer than the edge of the pedestal.

“It is a marvel, I agree”, said a voice behind Kathleen. She turned around to see Master Ethel standing on the carpet, her hands folded behind her back. Master Ethel was dressed in a white robe to reflect her wisdom, golden ornaments of fine thread represented the aspects of magic she had mastered. She had the face of a woman who had seen fifty winters or more, but Kathleen had learned not to judge that by the appearance of a mage, as most of them lived well beyond their years. Her dark grey hair was woven into a fine braid, much the same as Kathleen’s copper hair and she looked at her with her muddy brown eyes.

“Master Ethel, pardon me, I was unaware of your presence”, Kathleen said humbly. Ethel was the most respected scholar present at the academy and Kathleen shared that respect.

“As a novice would be. It was a foolish mistake, child, I expected better of you”, the Master replied sharply. “Remember, a mage’s most important tool is a disciplined mind.” When Kathleen did not reply to that, Ethel continued. “You are fascinated by the crystal, I understand. Have you learnt its secret yet?”

“I am not certain”, Kathleen answered. “I can sense that it contains energy, and more of it than other gems. But it seems that it holds other secrets.”

Master Ethel nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer. “You are not as foolish as one might think, child. And what are these secrets do you think?”

Kathleen hesitated to give an answer, she was not entirely convinced herself. But it was the best answer she was able to give. “It appears to be… glowing”, she said slowly. “I feared I was imagining it, but whenever I look at it, I have a strong sensation. Almost as if the crystal was alive.”

“You are not as far from the truth as you believe, Kathleen”, Master Ethel replied. “Now, you went to look for a caravan, didn’t you?”

“I did, but there was no sign of it.”

“It troubles you”, Ethel noticed.

“I am concerned”, Kathleen admitted. “In winters past, Langdale had received enough food for the winter by this time. Today it is said our supplies would suffice for another week.”

“Fear not, Langdale has seen harsher winters than this and it has survived them. The council will meet this evening. You might want to attend the meeting, I understand there are news that you will want to hear”, the Master explained. She bowed ever so slightly and said “Now, if you will excuse me, I shall retreat to my quarters.” Gracefully, she walked up the stairs and was gone from Kathleens sight. The young mage lingered for a while, her eyes resting on the crystal once more. But she had no intention of losing herself in its depths again. Kathleen walked up the stairs to the upper floors. On the first floor she found herself in earshot of a lecture given by one of the Academy’s Master Mages, so she slowed her steps.

“… -ing in mind, that any magic you perform will strain you as much as doing the same task without magic. A mage is only as good as his knowledge of the world and those who truly master the arcane arts find the most fascinating solutions. They see things that remain hidden to most others, they know how the tiniest change can have dramatic consequences. So what might we learn from that, what would you say?”

Kathleen reached the next flight of stairs before anyone could answer the Masters question. But she did not need to hear the answer, for she had once experienced what it meant to neglect the lesson. She had learnt that it was easier to tear down a wall when you removed certain stones rather than trying to crush all of them.



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