For today’s Season of Cheer post, I’ve picked a sneak peek at a fantasy saga I’ve been writing on and off for many years. Over a million words of story, and I’ve finally plucked up the courage to clean it up and turn it into something I’m not ashamed to offer to readers. Serrai and Madan’s stories – Sword Oath, Shadow Realm, and Soul Bound – are set in this universe. And in this snip we meet Macalla, the lady of Dornost, as she’s on the verge of leaving the country she’s given so much of her life to. Before she goes, though, there’s one final task she has to fulfil.
Macalla’s side of the bed was empty and cold. Aslan pushed himself upright and stared around the small room. Judging by the hearth log, burnt down to glowing embers, the night was almost over. The chamber was dark and quiet. And Macalla was gone.
Aslan rolled out of bed and lit a candle from the dying fire. Shielding the flame carefully from the draught, he surveyed the chamber. Macalla’s sword was propped against the wall next to her pillow, easily to hand; her wrist guards and throwing knives rested beside the bed, where she had placed them the previous evening. Even her dagger and poniard were there. But her clothes were gone, as were her boots.
Boots but no weapons? Alarmed, Aslan reached for his tunic and pulled it over his head. Then he yanked on his leggings and boots, grabbed his sword, and opened the door.
While they slept, the world had changed. Gone were the dark green columns of firs and larches, the deep browns of the forest floor, the rotting leaves, pine needles and mud. Gone also, were the rain and the biting wind. The world he faced now was silent and of a brightness that belied the early hour.
Everything around him was white. Shadows had vanished from his world, contours had blurred. Carefully, Aslan stretched out a hand towards the pile of firewood he knew was stacked waist-high beside the door. His fingers slid into the white mass as easily as if he had stuck them into a mound of sand, but the mass was cold and wet, the grains larger than sand grains, melting against his skin as he looked at them. And more of the same material was falling from the sky.
It’s not ice when it falls, it’s soft and delicate. Aslan smiled at the memory. This then, was snow. White and soft and delicate, it covered everything Aslan could see. But where in this shadowless world was Macalla? He took a few careful steps into the white mass, noting the prints left by his boots and noting also that the snow covering the area around the hut was unmarked. He moved towards the trees, the world white and eerily still around him until, suddenly, he saw it: a figure kneeling in the middle of a small clearing, all powdered over with snow.
Aslan walked towards his wife, shivering in the chilly air. Macalla’s hair, hands, and shoulders were thick with snow. Her eyes were closed, and her face was pale. She was barely breathing. Aslan stopped a few paces away, struck by how beautiful she looked, and how unearthly. But then he shivered and he remembered Macalla’s lecture on the symptoms and effects of hypothermia. He stepped forward and brushed the snow off Macalla’s hair.
“Macalla,” he said gently, “Time to come out of it, love.”
She didn’t move and he shook her a little. “Macalla, wake up.”
Her eyelids flickered, opened slowly. She smiled sleepily at him before her lashes swept down again.
“Macalla! Wake up!” His tone was sharper now, and Macalla reacted. Her chest and shoulders rose on a deeper breath and her eyes opened again. But her mind was clearly elsewhere and Aslan was done waiting. He bent, scooped her up into his arms, and walked back towards the hut, his boots sliding in the snow.
When he set Macalla on her feet beside the bed, her knees buckled. Aslan closed the door and added wood to the embers, while Macalla sat on the edge of the bed, looking around in an entirely bemused fashion.
Shaking his head at his wife’s incomprehensible behaviour, Aslan moved back to the bed and touched Macalla’s face and hands. She was cold as ice and so pale that her storm-grey eyes looked enormous and almost black. Not being too gentle about it, Aslan stripped her boots and the damp clothes off Macalla and wrapped a blanket around her. She neither helped, nor hindered him, but continued to look about her, as if she had never seen him or her surroundings before.
“Macalla, talk to me!” Aslan implored her, while he poured wine into a cup and held his dagger into the flames of the fire to heat it. “Whatever made you take off into the night without even a knife to hand?”
His tone was sufficiently exasperated to draw a reaction. “First snow,” Macalla said quietly, hugging the blanket closer around herself for warmth. “I cannot pray to the Just and Glorious while I’m bristling with weapons.”
Aslan came to the bed, stirring the wine with the heated knife blade to warm it, and sat down beside Macalla.
“Granted,” he said as he handed her the hot wine. “But you cannot expect the Just and Glorious to watch your back, so next time, make sure you wake me ere you go.” He slipped his arm around her shoulders as he spoke and pulled another blanket over her legs.
Macalla sipped the hot wine and the colour slowly returned to her face. “You looked so peaceful,” she said eventually, “and I thought I’d be back before you woke.” She frowned a little in concentration. “How long…?”
“Long enough to be all covered by snow. How did you even know that the weather had changed?”
“Aslan, this is Dornost. I knew all day yesterday that it would snow. I woke as soon as it started.”
“Do you always say prayers the first time it snows?”
“Yes. It’s a ritual that’s older than Dornost itself.” She paused, then looked up at him and smiled despite the tears in her eyes. “All these years it has been my privilege to invoke the blessing. And I was still here to do it one last time.”
Aslan’s arm tightened around Macalla’s shoulders. “If you want to reconsider-“
“No.” Macalla’s fingers found his and held tightly. “Maybe that’s why I was gone so long. It was all blue and peaceful. Finished.”
“Macalla, you could have died out there.”
“Yes. But instead they woke you in time to find me. So you see: the Just and Glorious are watching my back.” Her voice was as serene as her smile and, for the first time since they had left the Altan’s fortress, the shadow was gone from her face.
Aslan was glad to see the change. And as he cradled her, his hands slipping inside the warming blankets, he accepted that there were many things he didn’t yet know about his wife, but that discovering them would be in no way boring. And when she draped an arm around his neck and pulled his head towards her for a kiss, he stopped thinking altogether and just gave himself up to the passion that was quickly rising between them. And in that small hut in the depth of the ancient forest, they celebrated the glories of the first snow in an entirely appropriate manner.