Nyarthis had, overall, three roads leading out of town. The whole town was situated ‘round a single central street, cutting from the north to the south, and half a mile south lied a junction that led away either straight south, out of the mountains and into the northern Dhasallian highland, or east, toward Laghor, the biggest city – with a whopping two thousand inhabitants – in the Translagh. The northern road led into Thaesteria and the realms beyond.
Melphis, one of the inhabitants of this quiet village, sitting in his rocking chair just outside the town’s inn, wrapped from head to toe in a rather shabbily-made fur cloak that by far did not help against this year’s cold winter. He was fifty three years old, his hair still lush but completely grey by now, a thick white beard adorning his chin, a moustache – not really much more than a thick wedge of hair curving ‘round his mouth – to go with it, a fur hood on his head. It was five in the morning and it was extremely cold.
However, Melphis knew, it was not going to be boring today, by far – it was why he had to keep watch. Ayembolc, the second most important holiday of the year, was coming in two days. It seemed rather ironic having a holiday whose very motto was, “Winter ends here” with so much snow still around, but, Melphis reasoned, that shouldn’t have detracted at all from the fun, which quite possibly would be the most fun a man could get in an age in which men were basically tools for kings and nobles to abuse.
At about half past five, a few men, scratching their foreheads and wearing sleepy expressions, evidently not enjoying getting up so early, left their homes and started the painful and long job of clearing the snow off the road. There’d be traffic today - traders would be making their way back and forth through the mountains, for there was no shortage of customers when such a day was in sight. The men waved hello to Melphis as they went on their merry, or rather not particularly merry, way.
Now, Melphis, he had no obligation to such menial tasks, and you could see that, because his pike was left standing against the wall just beside. Melphis was one of the village’s whopping three guards.
Melphis took his job seriously. This was the Translagh – whole armies were known to disappear here, and with good reason. Avalanches, the unpredictable pathways of the mountains, and the innumerable dangers – from red dragons to ice demons – that lurked within the caverns and pits of these crags and peaks, these ravines and hollows, they all were more than enough to destroy a good army. Melphis was the one the people called for if a child got kidnapped by boggarts in the forests or a group of men never returned from a hunt. His life was given to this little worthless piece of the king’s land high in the cold, cold Translagh. And he was proud of it. Few men wanted such a post – but Melphis, who grew up in these mountains, knew them better than anyone, and hated nothing more than the idea of leaving.
And now, Ayembolc. Melphis looked forward to the day. He did not look forward to the consequences of the day – namely, a few dozen men drunk and littered on the still wintery ground or the many people who would get a cold on the day, because there were some certain traditions on Ayembolc – the reader will have to excuse us for not discussing them in detail right now, all I can say is, reasons of plot – that were so radically against winter as a concept that they completely did not take into account the fact that sometimes, hell, usually, the snow did not melt away by Ayembolc. That was, actually, the point. How better to show winter the way out than showing her she’s got no effect?
At six, the first traveler, a middle-aged man in felt boots, leather trousers and a fur shirt came along, dragging a donkey carrying what seemed to be two sacks. Judging by the man’s appearance, Melphis deduced that these sacks most likely contained provisions, for the journey ahead.
“Welcome, my good man, to Nyarthis,” Melphis smiled, waving to the traveler. “Happy holidays. Perhaps you need anything? Rest? Supplies?”
The man turned toward Melphis. The guard could see he was tired – the mountains were a merciless place to be in such a cold and unforgiving winter.
“Supplies, sir…” he replied, or rather, coughed out. “I would need some supplies, sir. Can you point me to where I might get some?”
Melphis nodded, his smile never once leaving his face. “Down the street, you’ll see a sign – that’s Aartlen’s place, his tradehouse. Are you sure you don’t need any rest, sir? You look tired. Here, behind me’s our town inn – warm beds right inside, and for not too big a price either.”
The man with the donkey shook his head slightly. “I can’t, sir. I’ve got my family waiting for me down in Ardrecht. I need to be there by Ayembolc.”
Melphis clapped his hands almost excitedly. “Ardrecht, you say? That’s wonderful, sir, because we have a boy here in Nyarthis, a blacksmith’s apprentice, who’s travelling to Ardrecht for that exact same reason – he’d leaving today, there’s a trader with a cart who’s going to take him along. Tell you what, sir – I’ll put in a good word with the boy and the trader, let you come along with them to Ardrecht. No, don’t thank me. I’ve got family in Ardrecht myself, actually. Wonderful people, Ardrechtians. Hardly nicer people in all the Translagh. Pity I’m too busy here. Can’t visit. Now, I suggest you get some rest. Tell Adrianne, inside the inn, that I sent you. Good luck, sir. And a merry Ayembolc!”
Cold. So much cold. Oh Alyavarra, damn this cold. But now… he’d done a good deed, made sure that man would last the way to Ardrecht… it wasn’t as cold as before.
The sun still wasn’t up, but Melphis knew that in no more than an hour he’d see her golden rays emerge from behind Mount Esdreen, whose shadow descended on the village from the east. They were in for a clear day – there weren’t a lot of clouds in the sky and you could still rather clearly see the stars.
The men had finished clearing the pathway of snow. And then began the real fun. First they stretched some extremely long garlands of paper “flowers” along the sides of the main street. Then, in a rare display of national pride – Melphis presumed they had nothing better to display – they brought out numerous banners of the Dhasallian king, and did the best they could at making sure every house had at least one. Quietly, Melphis started humming a tune.
An old man by a seashore at the end of day
Gaze’s the horizon with seawinds in his face
Tempest-tossed islands, seasons all the same
Anchorage unpainted and a ship without a name
Melphis stopped here. Where’d he heard that song? Couldn’t remember. He sat quietly for a few seconds, lost in his thoughts.
The sea… he’d never seen the sea in his life. Only the mountains. These dark, cold mountains. The sparkling, crystal-clear waters in the lakes, the dark, lush forests, and the tricks the moonlight and the shadows it casts away play on one’s eyes in the dark ravines. The ancient ruins of the elves, with their halls that once shone of marble and polished malachite, and the castles and damp military forts high on the peaks few dared tread before, and the ancient crypts of many a lord or king who, alongside their kingdoms, were outlived by the mountains they lived in. They sought riches, power and might in these mountains. They sought prosperity for their peoples, a bright future. Perhaps they sought refuge from their enemies, from the wrath the world was intent on inflicting on them. In that case, these seekers of refuge were the truest. Their refuges preserved them into death.
The dark skies above Mount Esdreen blurred as they slowly transformed from a dark, dark blue to an exquisite mosaic of gold, orange and a very light teal. The snow on the peak shone brightly as the rising sun emerged from beyond the mountains, the moon and the stars fading away into the morning sky.
The influx of travelers really started now, indecent numbers of tradesmen bringing in indecent amounts of various indecently expensive goods. Those goods were so expensive Melphis knew rather damn well none of the villagers could afford any of them.
However, among those indecencies there seemed to be a couple of useful items too. Such as axes. This village never had enough axes for all its woodcutting needs. Wasn’t surprising, really – the townspeople made a living from woodcutting, fishing and the occasional period of farming (once a decade or so).
Melphis wondered, quietly, why was he in Nyarthis – his closest living relatives were in Ardrecht, he should’ve left, gone to visit them. He had no family – his wife died in childbirth a good thirty years ago. His only son died ten years ago in a civil war that was wrecking the nation at the time. Melphis tried to take comfort in what the letter that announced his death suggested he could – the fact that his son died a heroic death, fighting for the true king of Dhasallia. But he couldn’t. He saw nothing more heroic in his son dying to put a boy of fourteen years of age at the time on the throne, removing the boy’s own mother from said throne in the process, than his son dying old and gray, surrounded by friends and family – and when Melphis wouldn’t be there to see it. Melphis remained, to some extent, still in mourning to this day.
Nevertheless, he found comfort in the solace that his mountains, the Translagh, gave him. The pine woods upon Mount Esdreen, the familiar faces of the people, and just a little faith in that things will be better one day eventually helped him through. Though not completely.
People started gathering in the streets, curiously browsing the merchants’ wares. Melphis continued to sit, observing the road, wrapping the furs tighter ‘round himself. Oh, how he wished that…
... Ayembolc was today!
The last snow on the streets of Nyarthis was terminated, extremely thoroughly. Not the slightest speck of it remained within ten steps of any house. It was an Ayembolc tradition to do so, wipe the town completely clean. And then… dance.
Women came with linen dresses and men came with woolen shirts and leather trousers – clothes completely unsuitable for winter, but more than suitable for Ayembolc. A group of minstrels in the distance took up musical instruments – namely a lute, a flute and a sitar – and with one enthusiastic swing across its strings, the lute-player started on a fast, rhythmic tune soon joined by the other two musicians.
Now, Melphis sat at the exact same spot where he sat two days ago. An honest smile on his face as he observed the festivities and even more furs ‘round him, but otherwise, he was immobile, frozen in complete standby.
He observed as the people danced to the tune, danced so quick, danced so madly… The cold could not get to them, for they danced too fast. The heat of their own bodies warmed them. Forced to the edge, starting to tire, but not once stopping lest they’d not feel cold. Not once stopping lest winter wouldn’t think itself needed.
He’d not take part, of course. Melphis had little to be happy about. He’d serve a greater good – he’d sit, ever vigilant, his pike leant against the wall just beside, and guard their celebration.
He observed them conclude their dance, and watched as they moved on to the next part of the festivities. A scarecrow, adorned with more snow than anything in Nyarthis right now, was brought out – the winter herself, no less. Or rather a traditional interpretation of a model of hers, anyway.
It was placed on a pike in the middle of the street and, amidst grandiose cheers, a column of fire shot upwards right beneath it, charring it in nothing more than moments, the flames reaching toward the skies. Melphis smiled. Nyarthis’s resident hedge wizard, Jan van Niederlecht, a boy of eighteen having just concluded his studies at the magical academy in Alech, really pulled through this time with the pyrotechnics.
After the burning of the jackstraw, the villagers took to the next part of the celebration – a huge feast. Brought out an amount of food that defied description, brought out at least five long tables, and got together one hell of a feast.
Melphis brought some food too – homecooked apple pie. But he didn’t eat. Had no such desire. Ayembolc was a holiday to mark the end of winter. In his soul, winter never ended.
Ayembolc… as the sky gradually turned dark and evening came, Melphis sat and thought. Of Ayembolc. Of his wife and his son. Of all the happiness a common human being has on the day. Ayembolc! When the winter ends… when spring comes, bringing a new dawn for all life.
If only his son could see one more Ayembolc…