The longest night, p.1
THE LONGEST NIGHT
Copyright 2016 Shelley B Chappell
It was mid-morning of the shortest day of the year when Marda gathered the gumption to poke her toe out of the bed. Shortly after came her foot, then her leg, then, in a rush, the rest of her body. The fire had grown cold in the grate and a hard crust of ice had formed over the water in her jug. She hopped from foot to foot, dancing about the room to keep warm as she lit the fire. By the time she had an aromatic soup bubbling in a pot above the reaching flames it was noon and she was courageous enough to face the outdoors.
The rush of crisp air was bracing but the way the weak winter sunlight caressed the white fields like a mother's gentle touch made her smile. Her restless foot brushed against a cloth-wrapped bundle.
"Whatever is this?" she asked, for Marda lived alone and talked to herself in the absence of others. She looked about but saw no-one. It wasn't unusual for one of her neighbours to bring her a gift in thanks for a cured cough or a soothed rash or a baby brought healthy into the world — but they usually knocked and kept company with her.
Marda dragged the heavy bundle inside and unwrapped it on the mat before the fire. Within the cloth was a twisted block of old wood. "A log for Jul?" Marda wondered. She could find no message, and no identifying mark on the rough cloth. Although the giver was a mystery, on the shortest day of the year the intention of the gift was obvious. "I will burn you tonight," Marda said.
Outside, the day was cold and still and her footsteps crunched in the snow as she walked towards the woods. There were herbs to collect, even at midwinter, and she could not resist the allure of such an afternoon of dappled sunlight and scents of pine and oak and glimpses of raven and pine marten. So she lost herself in the wonders of the woods, as she did most days.
When she returned at dusk, the fire was nearly out and she built it up before saying a prayer and laying the Jul log on for the night. The first stars began to twinkle as the flames licked the wood and sparks crackled their way through the bark. It was only a little later when Marda heard a steady rapping at the door. She had eaten her evening meal and was sitting at the table before a lit candle, attempting needlework. She expected the silhouette of a neighbour when she pulled open the door, a grimace on a familiar face, tumbled words of worry, of sickness, of need.
"Oh!" she said instead. For the figure that stood before her was no-one she knew and instead of an honest frown she found a radiant smile in a face of unearthly beauty. The woman wore white. The furs that draped her were those of wolves. Her hair was moon-gold and her eyes the pale blue of deep ice.
"Good evening, Marda," the woman said.
"Who are you?" The words were rude, but Marda could not have prevented blurting them out any more than she could prevent the woman pressing past her. She brought with her into the cottage the scent of snow and dank earth and the faintest hint of putridity.
"You may call me Lady," the woman said, laying her furs upon Marda's chair and wandering the room, peering at the rows of hung herbs and carefully labelled pots then pausing before the window and staring out at the moon.
"I have seen you many times in the woods," the woman said. "I have heard others speak of you as well." She swivelled to face Marda. Her pale eyes glinted in the firelight. "Although your dim human eyes are unlikely yet to see it, I am with child. You will be my midwife," she said. "Gather what herbs you need and we will be going."
Marda blinked rapidly. "Going where?"
"To my realm, of course."
Marda's lips felt numb. "And when will I come back?"
The woman smiled. "No-one ever comes back."
The fire crackled loudly and Marda's eyes drifted down to it as it popped and sparks burst from the wood in a shower of light. She rushed to the fireside as embers sizzled holes into her mat. Batting at the burns allowed her to delay facing the threat behind her. When she was done, she stared into the flames.
"I don't wish to go," she said softly. The Lady appeared not to have heard her. Only the fire listened, crackling quietly in reply. "I don't wish to go," Marda repeated. She stood, the warm flames at her back. "I'm sorry, but I will not be your midwife, Lady. Not if it means leaving this world and never coming back."
The Lady laughed. "Human wishes are common as snowflakes – but what is a blizzard to me?"
Marda flinched as the flames behind her suddenly licked her legs. She twitched and gaped as the flames kept on coming, streaming between her feet, until before her on the mat, facing the Lady, reared a small red creature, snarling and spitting flames.
The Lady flinched as well. Her eyes, when they rose to look at Marda, were glacial. She hissed between her teeth. But then she turned away, sweeping up her fur cloak and draping it around herself. "I will find another midwife," she declared. She stalked through the open door and was gone.
The creature on Marda's mat made a little coughing sound like laughter then slithered back between her feet and into the flames.
Marda softly closed the door then sank to the charred mat before the fire. If she looked hard enough, she thought she could see the salamander wriggling in the blaze. She loved the woods and it seemed the woods loved her. They wouldn't let the longest night take her. Smiling, Marda lifted her hands to the flames.
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Get the collection
Fall in love with four new versions of your favourite fairy tales in this magical collection of romantic novelettes for young adult readers.
Stars on Dark Water:
A Retelling of Rapunzel
In a tower in the desert, a young man is imprisoned by the lengths of his enchanted hair
A Retelling of Rumpelstiltskin
A travelling storyteller gains a peculiar ally when she is compelled to spin straw into gold
The Sleeping Maid:
A Retelling of Sleeping Beauty
A village blacksmith will do anything to reach his sweetheart, trapped behind a wall of cursed briar
The Old Boot:
A Retelling of Cinderella
The boy who keeps house for his stepfamily must get to the ball to win the heart of the cobbler's daughter
About the Author
If her life were a fairy tale, Shelley Chappell wouldn't be your run-of-the-mill princess. Although she was born and raised at the ends of the earth in Canterbury, New Zealand, there were no towers or dragons in sight. Her hair did once fall to below her knees, but her childhood was blissfully untroubled by talking animals or witches wanting to toast and roast her.
When she set out into the world, there were no mysterious strangers to guide her on her way, so she kept ending up at universities, where she indulged her lifetime habit of hunting down fascinating books to read. She suspects this may seem less exciting than your typical fairy tale's romp through the woods but humbly suggests it offers a happier ending for any deer, foxes or rabbits.
Shelley was disappointed that her PhD about werewolves and other shape-shifters brought no supernatural beings knocking on her door to offer their respects. Although she has worked hard over the years in a variety of roles, including as a university sessional lecturer and tutor, a high school English teacher, a librarian and a medical P.A., she considers her lifestyle to have been significantly better than Cinderella's. Despite extensive searching, she hasn't yet found her pot of gold or a fairy to grant her three wishes and is open to suggestions as to their whereabouts.
The Longest Night by Shelley Chappell / Fantasy have rating 2.3 out of 5 / Based on36 votes