Silver, grey, and white

Daphne stands at the tinseled window of their seaside solar while Jonah writes at the oak desk just beside her. He’s scribbling out a short letter to the nearest harbor up the coast, asking how they fare these days, or if they fare at all.

Daphne wraps her arms around herself, pulling her woolen robe a little closer about her shoulders against a chill that can’t be chased away despite the merry fire that snaps in the hearth at all hours. The drafts are too many; the winter’s too cold. She watches flurries of snow swirl past frosted glass, following small white cyclones as they spin down towards the iced harbor.

Black water churns moodily out beyond the jetty, but along the pier, the ships are all ghost-white. The masts, beam, and rigging are cast in feathery sprays of frozen seawater. The harbor resembles a strange and wild garden growing wooden ships, their hulls coated by rime from bow to stern, locked where they’re moored until spring... whenever that will be.

Silver, grey, and white.

These are the colors of deep winter, when it’s all cinder skies and towering snow drifts and months of waiting for the sun to reappear.

Please let it break. Please let spring come soon, Daphne prays. The longer this winter drags on, the more she worries that spring will never come again. This is no idle brooding. They are living through an unnatural season, conjured up by storms meant to curse the land for a score of years. And the curse appears to be sticking.

She warned them about her brother. She told them that Darius was rash and reckless and that he spoke in absolutes, favoring eye-for-an-eye justice above all else. The Council—fools, all of them—forced his hand, backing him into a corner where he couldn’t escape. An anointed mage with no way out. What did they expect to happen?

Well, what’s done was done and Darius was dead, murdered by the recoil of his own curse. But it was a good curse, strong, unbreakable, frosting over the bones of all those other dead men and women who fell in the Valley of Margrave that day, with tendrils of storm and blizzard spinning up from Darius’s bleeding mouth, birthed by his last breath. The storm grew and grew, like a hurricane, overwhelming the battle in an hour, icing over iron and steel, biting skin with patches of hoarfrost that froze flesh black, killing thousands.

She watched it happen from the northern ridge, aghast and frantic, too far away and too lacking in her own powers to stop him. He’d grown so strong. Still, she might have tried. She took two steps towards the valley before Jonah seized her hand and held her back. “No, Daphne, we have to go. Now!”

Margrave will remain uninhabitable for a generation. Up here, across the channel, it’s little better. The mainland suffered the worst of the storms, but the thick evergreen forests of these islands are hushed and buried in too much snow. Everwhite.

Jonah has written letters to holdfasts up and down the coast, hoping for signs of spring, too conscious of their dwindling supplies. But it’s the same everywhere. From the northern islands to the southern shores, there’s nothing but silver, grey, and white.

And blue... she must concede to this, at least.

Daphne sees her favorite shade every time she picks Leah up from her cradle, watching those little eyes light up at the familiar sound of her voice. It’s the same blue that paints Jonah’s eyes, a glacial color made warmer in the midnight hours as they make love by firelight.

Yes, there’s a little blue to be found here, even on winter-white islands. She’s blessed by it. So many were lost at Margrave. But she escaped with Jonah by her side and Leah already growing inside her. How could she be anything but blessed? How can she ask for more?

But this terrible winter, this famine of color... it goes on and on. There are no vibrant reds or violets. No ivy greens or sunflower yellows. All the mountain flowers are buried under feet of snow. The songbirds are gone too, flown off before the first storms, perhaps sensing the black magic about to be unleashed.

There will be no unspeaking her brother’s words.

Let us all die together then...

Spells still run in Daphne’s head at all hours, but she won’t speak another word of the old language. Not in this life. She won’t teach a word of it to her daughter either. Gods willing, Leah will grow up with little knowledge of what happened at Margrave and the vast corpse field that is hidden beneath those snow drifts.

Daphne won’t hide her part in it, nor will Jonah. They’ll be honest with their daughter. They’ll tell her everything she needs to know.

He was my brother, Leah. Your uncle. Our blood owns this curse.

She has no idea how she’ll tell Leah. But if spring would just come back, she thinks she might be able to manage it. If she only knew that life could be restored to barren land and that all those lost colors would someday return.

But this afternoon, those hopes feel like a distant thing. Another heavy snowfall is blowing in white sheets across the whole island, sprinkling over the land like powdered sugar on a cake. And Daphne continues to stand at her window, watching the weather with her arms crossed over her chest.

Soon, she finds herself muttering to Jonah, “What if Leah never knows what any color but grey looks like?”

Later, he remembers.

“Daphne,” he whispers, kissing her awake with a soft brush of his lips against her own. Perhaps too soft.

He’s attempting to wake her without waking the baby. Leah, after months of fussing through the midnight hours, sleeps soundly tonight.

Daphne sleeps just as soundly. As does everyone else, from here to the salt shore. It’s the middle of the night in the darkest days of the season. The day’s storm has passed, and there’s no wind to speak of. They are in the marbled eye of pale winter. The halls of the manor house are hushed, with only the occasional crackle of fire disturbing the silence.

But Jonah isn’t asleep. He’s propped up on his side on their bed, outside the quilts, fully dressed and attempting to wake Daphne from whatever dreams she currently finds herself in. He hopes they’re warm ones, with the sun on her face and a pleasant sea breeze stirring the strands of her dark hair. He hopes she dreams of the colors she misses so much. He hopes the nightmares of Margrave leave her be.

For a minute, he nearly thinks better of waking her at all.

But he soon tries again, set on his mission. Gently, he runs his first finger down the length of her forehead, her nose, tracing her profile down past her lips and her chin, where he’s finally rewarded for his efforts. Her hand emerges from the cocoon of warm blankets and cozy quilts to swat him away like a fly. He grins at the swat, catching her hand with his own and holding fast.

She doesn’t open her eyes but inhales deeply, slowly waking.

“What is it?” she mumbles, yawning. She blinks once, but her eyes are heavy with sleep and don’t want to stay open. Especially since their bedchamber is still dark, many hours from dawn, with little natural light to be found anywhere. Just dark windows and the muted glow of orange firelight from the hearth. She asks sleepily, “Is it morning?”

“No,” he answers her in hushed tones, before allowing, “Not for a while yet.”

She blinks again, suddenly more alert, recognizing that he’s fully dressed. She digs her elbows against the mattress, half-rising, her gaze drawn towards Leah’s cradle at the other end of the bedchamber immediately, worried something dire has happened to make him wake her.

But nothing seems amiss. The baby is sleeping. All is quiet and still. The fire in the hearth gleams, stoked by Jonah recently, with strong flames snapping on hickory logs. But Daphne needs him to confirm it, still too used to running to ever feel truly safe, “What’s happened? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he assures her, in his usual soft tones, leaning over and planting a kiss against her temple to seal the promise. He says, “But I want to show you something and I think you’ll like it, so get dressed. And dress warmly.”

“Leah...?” She hesitates, but only faintly.

There’s trust between them that few others can claim. But it’s a trust that Jonah feels he failed earlier in the day, through the simple act of not answering her question about Leah and all those other questions hiding behind it: Will this winter ever end, Jonah? Will my brother’s shadow follow us always? Is my blood tainted? Is our daughter’s?

‘Yes’ to the first, love, and ‘no’ to the rest. He should have answered with confidence and assurance. But he thinks he’s found a way to make it right.

He tells her, “Let her sleep. We aren’t going far.”

She follows him up the snowy hillside behind the manor house, to the top of high waterfalls that once crashed into the sea below before they all iced over in sheets of warbled glass, the roar of rushing water fallen as silent as the songbirds.

The sky above is a vast black canvas, dotted with white and silver stars. The crunch of their footsteps echoes loudly as the air is sharp and the night is clear. Daphne wonders where all those familiar cinder clouds have run off to.

Cowards, she grumbles inwardly. You hide away in the night while no one’s watching.

The snow isn’t as deep on the hillside as down below, where the drifts have blown up against the stone walls around the courtyard, nearly burying the gates. Still, Daphne matches Jonah’s eager pace, gathering the hems of her skirt and wool coat up with one hand, using the other for balance.

Jonah takes her care for struggle, reaching out his hand to help her climb the hill.

“If you’re tired, we can go back?” he mentions, concern for her suddenly taking precedence over his barely repressed excitement at whatever marvel he wishes to show her. He’s a few years past forty now, and not all that white in the scruff of his beard is snow, yet he’s acting half his age tonight, filled with renewed energy, with all his world-weary expressions left behind at the manor house. It’s endearing and piques her interest.

And if he thinks she’ll turn back now, after he’s dragged her out into the snowy wilds of the island...

She nearly laughs at him, but she’s still groggy and doesn’t want to spend the energy. Yet she does pause on the hillside for a moment, giving him that look. The one that once melted powerful men twice her size to their knees before her. Winter made lambs of them all, but before Margrave, she was a mage in her own right, and there were many who cowered in fear if they knew they might be forced to tangle with her.

Not Jonah, never Jonah. And she loves him too much to really mean it. But it’s his fault for so cavalierly waking her up from a sound slumber in the middle of the night.

“I fought black magic at Dier’s Cross while you slogged through a river of dead men,” she reminds him pointedly. “I survived two months lost in the Shadow Lands, with nothing but your voice to lead me out. And I bore you a child, Jonah, right down there, in the halls of your forefathers, while the storm gods attempted to take you away from me forever.” She huffs, her breath white against the night air. “I think I can manage to climb a snowy hillside.”

“No doubt, my lady,” he replies wisely, properly chastised. But she catches sight of his proud grin under the chilled starlight, and it warms her.

In all the years she’s known him, Jonah has never once attempted to be her superior, even though it’s the usual way of the world, and he has his own list of accomplishments to claim. He’s defended her from those who might put her brother’s sins upon her, even when that person has been herself. He’s loved her for more than half her life. She’s loved him back the same.

She takes his steadying hand, grateful for it, despite her fiery speech. Grateful for him.

And when they reach the flat of the hill, Jonah leads her just a little farther, out of a dense grove of red spruce and white pine sheathed in white and into the flatter meadowland, where the snow blankets the open field for half a mile or more, all sloping gently, its views of the sea to the south obscured by a thick treeline but its view of the night sky to the north unparalleled.

Especially on a crisp winter’s night like this one.

“Oh!” Daphne exclaims, with surprise, as her eyes see it instantly. The reason he dragged her out of bed and into the wilderness becomes apparent at once. For the sky...

Oh, the sky...

The entire sky is lit up like it’s on fire. It’s tinged with every color she can name, and a bunch of others she can only fathom. Greens and reds, blues and violets. It all shimmers together, dancing in solid bands from horizon to horizon, flowing like water but sparking like errant flames. Slowly unfurling, moving like waves over the heavens.

A dance.

The lights are dancing in the expanse of the sky.

Daphne takes a few steps forward, her neck craned upwards and the sparkling rafters of the cosmos high above her. She’s not sleepy now. She can hardly speak. She’s never seen anything like it in her life, and she’s seen many odd wonders. But neither star comets, nor underground castles, nor silver-blue water spells, nor any crystal crown can compare. The entire northern hemisphere, the cathedral dome in which she stands no larger than a dust speck, is lit up by a hundred thousand lights, dancing. All dancing.

It’s beautiful. It’s glorious.

“What...?” she can’t manage the question, unsure of what she’s seeing. “And how...?”

Jonah is delighted by her reaction. He knows he’s surprised her.

Good, he thinks. This was his intention. Daphne grew up in the south of the kingdoms, where such sights are uncommon. But he grew up on this very island. He caught a glimpse of the lights earlier in the night and guessed a spectacular show would await them. He knows how well she misses the colors of spring and summer. And how the wonders of winter might ease their absence.

“Is it magic?” she asks, still marveling, not knowing a spell that could conjure such a thing.

“I don’t know,” he admits, taking a few steps forward to join her. He slides his arms around her waist snugly, wrapping her up in his grasp, keeping her warm as they watch. She accepts his embrace with no argument, gliding her own wool-clad arms over his, settling back against the warmth that naturally radiates from his tall frame.

He murmurs at her ear, “The priests say it’s a song in the air that happens when the sun fails to visit the northern skies for too long. The fishwives say it’s the meadow gods painting the heavens because they’ve grown tired of winter white. But it’s pretty, isn’t it?”

“It’s... breathtaking,” Daphne whispers, unable to tear her eyes away from the spectacle in the sky.

The lights fill the northern half of the celestial dome. So many colors. She doesn’t know all their names. She wonders if Jonah might know what to call that intense turquoise that smooths into a rosy lime then flickers back to a robin’s egg blue. A shock of red scarlet forms above the line of smooth green. A spray of violet blooms up from beneath, like a wave crashing over a river of tangerine. And they move and flicker and bleed into each other, creating more shades with every fold and shimmer.

“I’ve been all over the world,” Jonah says. “But I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else. When I was a boy, I’d come up here in the middle of the night and watch until morning, wondering if I’d ever see anything as beautiful.”

“Did you?” Daphne wonders, too distracted to catch his tone. He sounds as though he’s speaking of natural wonders and foreign landscapes.

“Aye, but only just,” he teases, tightening his grip on her waist just a little. She feels a little smile steal over her cold lips and she turns her head slightly, to brush the top of her fur-lined hood against his bearded chin. She feels him push back the hood of her cloak with his gloved hand to press a brief kiss against her hair.

She relaxes, sinking back against his chest, content and warm despite the cold night. She continues to drink in the sight above her with awe. This part of the world will never cease to amaze her. She’s so glad that when they ran from Margrave, Jonah had been compelled to bring her here. To his home.

Our home, she reminds herself, suddenly more than happy with the thought.

Years before, she told Darius that she might want a simpler life. One without magic or high councils or court intrigue. He scoffed at her for it, saying that she would find drudgery and tedium on her lover’s northern island, too wild and remote to be of interest to anyone who truly wished to change the world. But Daphne never wanted to change the world. She never craved power like Darius.

You are not your brother, Daphne. How many times has Jonah reminded her of this? But it’s her own voice repeating the words in her head this time. And under that luminous sky, she’s tempted to believe them.

Someday they will bring Leah up here to watch the lights too. The idea that her daughter will grow up under skies that can manage such brilliance and majesty in the middle of winter gives her joy. The idea that her daughter will grow up at all gives her peace.

For now, that’s enough.

Jonah and Daphne stand in the meadowland and watch until the dance of lights is spent, the glory of the night sky whispering away to its edges before disappearing into black mist, leaving behind a scattering of silver stars.

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Gretchen Tessmer is a writer/attorney based in the U.S./Canadian borderlands. She writes both short fiction and poetry, with repeat appearances in Nature, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Fantasy & Science Fiction, among other venues.

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