written by Mel Paisley
story by Brian Woodward and Mel Paisley
Way up in the mountains of the North, there is a forest which runs red against the snow.
Once upon a time, the trees here had been warmed by laughter, by shimmering festivals, by body heat. The youngest of the three sister-queens of the North ruled her court with open arms and a gentle heart, leaving the broad gates open in the brutal winters, her lips colored with sweet plum and hollyhock, shoulders bare in the torchlit glow of the folk dances she hosted in the castle’s courtyard, kicking up her feet with gentry and peasantry alike in the safety of those halls. Apple faced farm girls and weather worn miners twined at the elbow with elegant emissaries and clever courtiers, the sing of a fiddle never far behind in the orchard palace of her domain, echoing amber through the silver wood.
But that was before.
In the fifth year of her reign, rumors of The Dream began to curl in from the Western Wastes.
Whispers drug along the flagstone in frantic whispers, the trembling hands of ancient augurs, begging knowledge from the thrown bones of white ravens, their backs bowed low in the snow and palms raised towards fickle-minded gods, scrabbling for favor.
You see, The Dream curdled kingdoms. It unlaced the minds of sane men like the stripping of a seam--of priories and peasants and clerics and kings, the logic of the land itself known to unspool beneath the raging of its winds.
Nobles began clamoring for the gates of the Silver Court to close, to stock the coffers full of summertime harvest enough to sustain the few they could bear hunkered behind closed walls until the storm blew over.
But the girl-queen would not have it.
In a plea of desperation to save her people, the queen took to the old stories held over from the time of her mother’s mother’s mother with her tender trusting heart and spun a ritual to the Dream Merchant—that fabled arbiter between the waking world and the mad chaos in the coming storm. There was a thread, a song, a silver length of her hair woven into a birch branch and then burned by a blind augur in the starlight of a waning moon, her questions and her grief begging out into the snow.
When the Dream Merchant came to answer her call, the Silver Court fell silent.
Courtiers’ retreated to the grand edges of the throne room as the mirage of a man shivered through the refractions in the air, becoming phantom, becoming flesh as he stepped towards the queen, a silverpoint cloak of tin bells and splintered time trailing in his wake.
The young queen stood before him, her thin wrists tense, her soft shoulders made tall with determination. She raised the pale point of her chin and told him that the heart of her people was strong. That the old stories supposed that The Dream feasted on a crises of faith, so if she could just find a way to convince them to maintain a unified front, to guard their neighbors, they could brave the mad winds together.
She spoke her piece and that slippery, trickster godling pledged the spade of his hand to his harlequin shoulder and bowed low into the bend of her bargain, sunning himself in the rose tinted warmth of her belief. Amusement curled his clever lips as she spoke of such slender things as unity and love, but he straightened in service to her request, a spindle of half truths slipping in double-speak from his ageless, crystal mind:
If that is what you wish…twine the left ankle of every citizen in your domain in a length of pure wool dyed scarlet with the blood of the head of the neighbor’s house before the next waning of the moon. Do this, and the fate of the weakest among you will be braided to that of the strongest. Do this, and your people will be one body, indivisible and strong. Do this, and there will be nothing any god or wind or man can to corrupt them apart from each other again.
There is no song or dance here, not anymore.
Only the way the red-bodied warmth of the forest rises against the crisp pallor of the snow. Flurries crackling into steam where the crimson soaks from the roots up to the thinnest tips of the trees, tiny fractal branches reaching out towards one another through the chilled swath of snowblind sky.
Oftentimes, the rustle of the girl-Queen’s skirt is the only sound above the slow babble of the brook, dressed all in white, hair and hands and lips all washed the color of bone, an ecstatic flush rosy in her shoulders, warming the color of her face from her hair as she trails through the remnants of the Silver Court.
The red, animal heat of the underbrush unfurls towards her in all directions as she walks affection nestled sweetly in the hollow of her throat as her pale fingers strum the red of the connected, breathing, ventricle earth...millions of tiny consciousnesses shivering to life beneath the snow.
To this day she remains pulse of that place, the court and the tillers of the land reduced to the flora and fauna of a single warm body, a soft protected thing unified by the solitary beating of her tender, foolish heart.