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Ghosts of Winters Past December 23, 2011

Posted by techtigger in flash fiction.
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Happy Holidays everyone! It’s time for the annual Nox and Grimm holiday special!  This year I have a short story set about 3 years before the current timeline in the serial. I hope you enjoy it.  🙂

-Angie

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Nox sat on top of a gravestone, her feet swinging in time to the music coming down from the mansion. Every year her father, the Lord of Ice, held a Wintertide ball for all the nobles beholden to the House of Ice.  At any other time she would have been stuck inside, playing hostess until the wee hours of the morning. Not this year, however. She had put aside her fancy gown and jewelry for more practical traveling clothes.

Grimm was sprawled on the snow covered ground by her feet, eating cookies and licking colored sugar from his muzzle. His deep, rumbling voice echoed in the back of her mind. “You are out here early. What is the special occasion?”

Nox brushed a few cookie crumbs from her lap. “Oh, it’s nothing really. I just wanted to make sure you got your gift.”

The hound tilted his head a little to the side. “You did not need to miss the dancing for that. I know how much you enjoy it.”

“I wouldn’t have gotten to dance anyway. I turned eighteen this autumn,” she said, her heels still tapping against the cold stone.

“Oh, that. What an awful waste of time for you.”

“Oddly enough, mother said the same thing. Had a real row with father – Why are you endangering our only child for a pointless ritual?” Nox said, mimicking Serenna’s strident tones.

The massive hound sat up, which put his head on level with hers. “Much as it pains me to say it, I agree with her. I recognized you as Lucien’s heir years ago.”

Nox shrugged. “Unfortunately, you are not one of my ancestors. And what with me being half-human, everyone seems to feel I need to prove myself. Again. What a pain.”

Grimm let out a loud harrumph. “What makes people think your relatives have any more sense in death than they did in life? Besides, if we are using age as a measure, I am older than any of those blowhards racketing around in the mountains.”

Nox raised an eyebrow. “Wow, I knew you were old furball, but not that old!”

The hound gave an amused snort. “Back when I was young, dirt was still a new concept and all the trees had only grown knee high.”

Nox laughed and tossed him another cookie. “Well, age certainly hasn’t dulled your sense of humor.”

“When you have been around as long as I have, you learn to appreciate a good laugh,” Grimm said. He shook himself and looked up at the sky. “If you are going to get there and back while the moon is still high, you will need to get moving. I would recommend taking the river most of the way, it is frozen just past the ford.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Nox said, and hopped down off the tombstone.  “Here, you can have the last cookie. Merry Wintertide, Grimm.”

“And to you, little one. Oh, you can tell your silly ancestors that if they do anything to cut off my supply of sweets, I shall come up there and box their ears.”

Nox whooped with laughter.  “I’ll do that!  See you in a little while, furball.”

“I will watch for your return,” the ancient guardian said, making the cookie disappear just before fading out himself.

Nox ran lightly through the graveyard, her feet barely making dents in the snow.  Half-human she might be, but she was still enough of a Winter-kin to move easily through the elements. Now if only she could convince everyone else of that…

She stopped at the river’s edge and ran a hand over the soles of her boots, forming skates out of ice. The river itself was eerily silent. She could sense the turbulent water surging below its frozen surface, but the ice was so thick it muffled the noise. The only sounds were the occasional creak of tree limbs shedding snow, and the whisper of her skates as she glided along.  The lights of the mansion soon disappeared behind her, leaving her with only the pale illumination of the moon.

Two miles passed beneath her feet before the frozen river curved around a sharp bend.  Nox whistled, and a chilly breeze curled around her, leaving ice crystals hanging in the air. The moonlight refracted through them, lighting the night more brightly. She only kept them aloft for a few moments, however, just long enough to find the path that led up to the mountain pass. There were creatures in the mountains that obeyed no laws, and would consider her a tasty dinner if she made herself too easy to track.

The path led steeply upwards, winding through tall marker stones that were covered in elemental casting marks. Some were so old that the lines were nearly worn away, and Nox paused a few times to take a closer look. A few were protective enchantments, and others kept the path clear. Most were unreadable, however, and she gave up and moved on.

Soon the path turned into stairs, and then it became little more than handholds in the rocks. Nox pulled a special set of gloves out of her pocket and tugged them on. More casting marks were embroidered on them, her own handiwork, and they gripped the slippery stone as if covered in glue. They could not add strength to her slender arms, however, and she was trembling from the effort by the time she got to the top.

A cave sat off to the side of the trail, and Nox rested by its entrance until she caught her breath.  “What were our ancestors thinking?” she grumbled. “Rock climbing is for Stone kindreds.” Eventually she got up, straightened her clothes and patted her hair into place. If she had to meet with the spirits of her ancestors, she at least wanted to make a good first impression.

The cave was filled with icicles, hanging in ranks like an inverted pipe organ. Nox reached up to flick one, and it rung like a bell. A grin split her face – how many times had her mother forbidden her to do just that, fearing that the decorative ice flows around the mansion would fall on her head?  “She’s not here now, and father said to follow my instincts.” Nox tapped a few more, filling the air with shimmering sound. “I wonder if they’re hollow? Only one way to find out.”  She took a deep breath, and sang out a pure, clear note.

A chorus of sound answered her. There were deep, resonant tones that she could feel through the soles of her feet, and flute-like harmonies swelled around her, along with high, piercing notes that filled her head.  She tried singing different notes, playing with the harmonies until she could almost get the chamber to sound like a choir in full voice.  She was just dipping down into the lower registers when a dissonant noise rattled the chamber.

Nox let the song die out, but the rumbling persisted. She cautiously poked her head out of the cave, and looked up the pass. A wall of white moved towards her, splitting around the enchanted trail. The cave, however, had no such protections, being slightly off the path.

Oh, crud,” she said, and ran full tilt into the depths of the cave. Her father could have simply frozen the avalanche in its tracks. Even a child of the winter kin could have made an ice wall to direct the snow away. Nox did not have that kind of power, however. She would be lucky if she could dig her way out afterwards. “I just had to play with the icicles, didn’t I?”

Snow poured into the cave, and she pressed herself as close to the back wall as she could get. After what seemed like an eternity, the noise stopped. Nox made her way back toward the entrance, but it was packed with a solid plug of snow.  “Brilliant. Now what?”

“You have passed the test of skill, but failed the trial of strength. So, weak little songbird, why should you be given the right to assume the throne?”

Nox spun around to find herself face to face with a ghost. She didn’t flinch, however. Grimm had snuck up on her too many times, and she was used to such tricks. “Why hello, great great great grandfather. Lughaid, isn’t it?”

Another ghost appeared. “Answer or die.”

Nox made a tutting sound. “Here now, traditions must be observed, great grandfather Lucan. My name is Nox, how do you do? Oh, hello, great grandmother Nereia. You look lovely in that shade of white.”

Nereia let out a whispery laugh. “She has courage, even if it does border on cheek. I think we should give her a chance.”

More ghosts were appearing, all of them with the black hair and blue eyes that were the hallmark of her family. They were all taller than her, however. Nox took after her mother in height, much to her endless annoyance.

One of them, who was dressed head to foot in chainmail, stepped forward and sneered. “I say she has tainted blood. Wipe her out as a lesson to Lucien. Let him stick to his own kind, and sire a proper heir.”

“Don’t you dare threaten my son, Lorcan. Or my granddaughter.  She is of the bloodline, the enchantments that bind our family hold true in her.”

“Kill her.”  “No!”  “Give her a trial.” “She has already failed!” “She is an abomination!” “What are we, barbarians?” “A half-breed should never have been born!”

Nox clenched her fists. She had heard the same sort of slurs her whole life, but hearing them from her own kin was too much. Something inside her snapped, and she yelled out, “Grimm was right! You are nothing but a pack of fools, and death has not improved you.  I ought to let him box your ears like he threatened to.”

Several of them turned toward her, surprise clear on their faces.  “You can summon Grimmalkyn?”

She glared at them. “Since the age of five.”

Lughaid returned her scowl. “You lie. No child could pay the blood price, and control the beast afterwards.”

“I didn’t use blood. The binding only requires an appropriate offering. Blood for blood to be shed, but I only wanted a bedtime story. So I brought him cookies.”

A tall, thin lady that Nox thought might be her great great great great aunt Noreen sputtered in disbelief. “Cookies?  Preposterous!”

Nox shrugged. “He has a sweet tooth. Don’t blame me if you weren’t smart enough to find the loophole in the binding spell.”

She regretted those words almost immediately, as Lughaid jumped on them. “A trick! I knew that one so weak as you could not hope to truly control the guardian. The truth comes from her own mouth. Let us end this charade, my kin!”

“End me? You and what army?” Nox said, crossing her arms.

Lughaid drew out a blade that looked like a needle of ice, long and bitterly sharp. “I need no army, weakling.”

Nox gave him a cold smile. “I think you are forgetting the fact that you are dead, and I know your names.”  She walked right up to him, and sketched a symbol on the blade that made it fall apart. “I don’t care if you don’t like me. If I were truly unfit to rule, I would step aside without a fight. But I will not let your small minded ignorance put the future of our people at risk.” She sketched another quick symbol in the air, and grabbed his now-solid tunic to yank his face down to her level. “I swear, if you ever threaten me or my father again, I will bind you so tightly you will have to beg me for enough wind to blow out a candle. Do you understand?”

Enough, children.”

Nox shoved Lughaid away from her, and turned to face the latest arrival. The ghost was so old he could barely materialize, and she could not make out enough of his features to recognize him. Which meant she could not bind him. Even so, she drew herself up to her full 4’ 10”, and tried to look as imposing as possible.

“Be at ease, my dear. I mean you know harm,” he said, as if reading her mind.

Who knew, maybe he could, Nox thought. The shade reached an arm out, but she could not see his hand. She felt it though, the cold, bony fingers tilting her chin up.

“How strange, that one so different turned out to be even more truly an heir to our line than most. Strange days, indeed.”

Nox caught a glimpse of the other ghosts out of the corner of her eye. They had all backed away, and bowed their heads in respect. Just who was this spirit?

“I wonder if Lucien knew what a hard path he set for you, when he married your mother. Still, there can be no denying it. You are one of our own. Welcome, my many-times-over great granddaughter.”

“Um…thank you?  I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name.”

She got the vague impression that he was smiling at her. “Call me great grandfather.”

“Okay. Thank you, great grandfather. And a merry Wintertide to you.”

“Have you brought a gift, as tradition demands?”

A smile tugged at the corner of Nox’s mouth. She wasn’t sure if he was mocking her earlier comments or simply sharing in the joke, but she already liked him better than the other spirits. She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. “I have. Here you go sir, and may it bring you memories of springtime in the mountains.”

She pulled a small pellet of ice out of her pocket. Tiny elemental casting marks were carved into it, and as she blew on it, it started to unfold. Petals flowed outwards, and feathery fronds uncurled from the center. Once it was done, she held a perfect replica of a frost flower in her hand, carved out of ice.

Behind her, one of the ghosts growled, “That is not a weapon!”

Nox looked down her nose at him. “I happen to like flowers, and tradition states that the gift should show my strengths. I fight with my wits and my knowledge instead of swinging a sword like a meat cleaver. It took skill and patience to carve the marks perfectly on so small a surface. I doubt you could do half so well.”

“She is correct. Our line does not always produce warriors, my son. Scholars and artisans have ruled as well as their more warlike kin,” the elder said, and despite the mildness of the rebuke the other ghosts flinched. “Your gift is accepted, great granddaughter.” 

He reached out to touch the flower, and lines of force flowed over it, etching new patterns. The petals changed, becoming pliant as if they were real, and took on all the colors of ice. They were black on the tips of the petals, and changed to shades of blue and white as the colors washed into the center. Veins of clear, glittering crystal spread over them in a web, and made up the fronds in the center as well.

“Go with my blessings, and may your reign be a peaceful one.” He motioned to the other ghosts. “Come. Let us announce the return of our granddaughter as the new Lady Ice.”

With a howl of wind straight from the heart of Winter, the ghosts ripped around the cave and smashed the snow out of the entrance. Nox ran after them, and found that an easy path had been carved into the snow.  All along its length her flowers bloomed, glimmering in the moonlight.

The trip back down the mountain went much more quickly, and the North Wind pushed her at breath-taking speeds along the frozen river. Nox had never moved so fast in her life, but she loved every minute of it. As she made her way off the river and up the road to the mansion, she could see more flowers festooning every door and window, and there were even some hanging from the gate to the graveyard.

Grimm was waiting just inside, and the hound gave her a deep, respectful bow. “Welcome back, Lady Ice.”

“I did it. I actually did it!” Nox said.

“I never doubted you for a moment. Go on now, hurry inside. There is a party waiting for you. Although,” he said, giving her plaintive, puppy dog eyes, “If you should happen to have any leftover sweets later…”

Nox plucked a flower and tucked it behind the hound’s furry ear. “Forget leftovers. I’m sending you out a whole feast!”

Grimm’s tail thumped the ground so hard it set up plumes of snow. “All hail the new Lady Ice!  Long may you reign!”


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Comments»

1. Julie (O-kami) - December 24, 2011

Do you think if I find the right cookies Grimm will come live with me?? Thanks and Happy Holidays!!

2. techtigger - December 27, 2011

*lol* Happy Holidays to you to! 🙂


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