Winter King

Casey Horner

Casey Horner

In the dark valley, at the end of the old world, once stood a great stone lodge. The dwelling existed without time, bound only by fragments of collective memory. It was a place the extinguished came to deposit their recollections of living before crossing into the ridge beyond Winter.

I came in from the snowdrifts, feral with longing. With no recollection of what had come before my journey into that cold dark, my spirit ached for purpose, for some remembrance of how I came to be there.

There was not another soul to challenge my place, so I became guardian of the lodge. I watched over the valley and tended the fires, hoping to illuminate any fellow traveler’s path. I lit the long halls with pillars of candles.

Hidden in the shadows, I discovered the great chests, filled with artifacts of memories, atemporal and disordered. I studied them, yearning to understand who had been here, and who may come.

I burned sage through the rooms and swept the leaves from the floors. I adorned myself in skirts of tulle and a crown of juniper branches. I played music for the moths, waiting.

At last, my fires lured a few wanderers out of the snows. I received these folk as friends, keen to behold the company of others. Unlike myself, they came with their stories of living well-remembered. So I cataloged their grief and joys and fed them wine, and all the while wondered why I knew not what I had been before.

Evenings waxed long into evenings, and their passage was marked only by the rising and falling of the three moons above us. On one such moonrise, an elder woman came to my door. She brought with her a lock of her lover’s hair, wearing it in a charm around her neck. She asked me if I had seen him come through the valley. I had not. I brought her in, tucking her locket into one of the chests, and consumed her tale in earnest.

Once, a small boy came to us with a golden timepiece and not a voice to tell of it. He drew the scenes of his death in charred ash upon the hearth. It haunted him. I took his ash and his gold to the chests, exorcising his woe. From that night on he sat by my feet, playing with the spiders and dust mites, a child once more.

Later, upon some considerably darker eve, a fearsome poet arrived. She sang to me brazenly of the wars she had seen, recalled from the days she knelt upon a hill to watch the battles of gods and men. She had no object to give our chests, so instead I collected her songs. I pressed their notes into parchment and watched as the color returned to her face.

Drawn by our woodsmoke, more arrived at our place of the in-between. I became their keeper, their King, vowing solemnly to harvest their histories and guard them as my own people. We lived in the twilight between time, weaving together an old story from every fragment brought to us. I dutifully scribed every detail until the chests became full of memories of the once-living, until my guests were relieved of their ghosts.

When the Messengers finally came for us, they came softly, as deer. As they padded quietly near us, their golden antlers glinted from the glow of my fires. They surrounded the lodge and peered in the frosted window panes.

“Release them, King,” the Messengers whispered to the eaves. “They have lingered too long in their sorrows.”

The elder lover and the poet had heard and looked to me for an answer. The young boy sat drawing again in the ash. Innumerable others, their pains yet defined to me, spoke nothing. They continued to rummage among the chests for some unknowable story, perhaps their own.

I hummed back, darkly, “These sorrows are the stories of the old earth. I must preserve them. Where else might we go but here, the last outpost?”

The golden deer entreated. “There is a beginning that awaits you: a bright star called Day. Look,” whispered the Messengers.

The others and the poet gathered to windows. Beyond the valley, just over the ridge, a dawn broke through the tree line. The snows began to melt. Blades of green pushed through and rose to meet the sky in a tangle. The once barren forest bloomed a new world, glowing.

My travelers turned to me and I accepted what remained of their burdens. Soon they left with the Messengers towards the gold and green. When they passed over my threshold, it is said they had forgotten all they had lived and were reborn with the morning.

I buried their histories in my palms, unwilling yet to leave them. I moved through the rooms, alone again.

In the depths of my solitude, I paused before a long gilded mirror. I saw in the bright glass the passing of an ancient creature. My eyes sunken, black gleaming beetles. My crown entwined into my unshorn hair, my long skirts torn, flecked with candle wax and dark wine. I was a wild, dying king.

I yearned for a storyless void, for the warmth of morning. I dropped every last recollection into the chests, locking them away into that old place of anguish. Scrolls lay sprawled on the tables, half-written, never to be read by another.

I moved softly through the parlor and looked back across the long expanse of the past, flickering in the gaining light. My familiars had disappeared into the edge of the forest, at last passing into their unknown.

The moons rose out of the sky and brightness overtook the veil above. There were no stories left to harvest, and no travelers to be received. Now by the star, they would find their own way through the fields.

By the last of the candles and juniper branches, I caught fire to the lodge. I watched it burn for an age until all that remained were a smattering of stones and the smoke of old dreams, simmering into the scorched earth.

Naked to the dawn, I walked into the forest to join the others, unburdened.


This piece appears in Boshemia Magazine: POWER. By E.