Once Upon A Time…
(Which is another way of saying that this is a fairy-tale, which means that it will play by the rules (or most of them anyway, as fairy is tricksy and has a mind of their own), and that it is and isn’t about what it says it’s about (half the meaning is on the page, freely given, and the rest must be pieced together, and quested for and sought out) and that the characters are and aren’t themselves (they could even be me, or you, or that girl you saw in the park this one time, or the cousin who’s been on your mind))
But getting back to it,
Once upon a time, a soldier was making camp on the banks of a lazy winding river. It was drawing on for evening and he had laid a fire and set out his bed-roll, and stretched the oilskin sheet above and over it, in case of rain. He didn’t think rain was likely but it was an unpredictable time of year. Stretching limbs tired from a long day’s walk, he knelt on a smooth, flat rock by the bank and used the last of the sun’s glow to shave in the water’s glassy reflection. First he tested the blade of his smallest knife, clicked his tongue and stroked it over the whetstone for several minutes. Then he pounded a paste of soap-root (that he’d picked from the trail-side earlier that day), tallow and ash, and rubbed it into his skin. Finally he drew the sharpened blade across the lines of his face, sculpting and trimming the reddish-gold strands of his beard into a shape that pleased him. This he did for nothing and no-one save that it was a ritual after a time of hard walking or fighting, once he had reached the end of his trials.
The soldier was about finished, and bending to splash away the paste on his cheeks with double-handfulls of the chill river-water, when a disturbance upstream scattered his reflection into a thousand dancing ripples. Startled, for he had heard no approach, and his ears were wild-places keen, he looked up, fingers curling around the hilt of the smallest of his knives.
There was a young woman, pale against the gloomy backdrop of trees and bank, kneeling in a birch-wood coracle and holding a pole braced in the river-bed to keep out of the current. She smiled at him in the fading light, and the soldier relaxed. He knew her.
“Hello” the soldier said, gently to the river maiden, suddenly aware that his voice had been worn gruff with a long time of walking trials in silence. Then he splashed water over his cheeks and his jaw, and cleaned the blade of the smallest of his knives, while the maid watched in silence. Presently, he moved back a ways to his camp, started the fire with his clockwork tinder box and indicated a place beside it to the girl, making the ritual gestures of invitation and welcome.
She smiled again. It seemed a larger, firmer smile this time but the night was all but fallen and so the soldier wasn’t sure. Inviting strangers with the ritual signs to share your fireside as the dark rose around it was not always a wise practise, but the maid was not quite a stranger to him. Indeed, he thought she must live beside the river, so often did he see her on it, in a boat or wading, and often, when his path brought him close enough, he had heard her sing. She had a voice like nut-oil, beautiful and slippery. No matter how hard the soldier listened, her words always seemed to slide off his ears and out across the water before he could quite grasp their meaning.
Standing smoothly, knees bent and poling to balance the coracle’s dip and bob, the maid threw the soldier a strong silver chain and let him pull her small craft to shore. She alighted with a graceful leap barely splashing in the shallows, and the soldier saw she was barefoot. With a pang he remembered the river-water’s chill. After making the coracle fast to a nearby leaning willow-tree, she made the gestures of thanks and peace-bearing and approached the fire, carrying a rough-spun sack from the depths of her boat.
“I have something for you,” she said, indicating the sack, before sitting down cross-legged beside him, “a gift.” At this the soldier was startled, gifting was a strange and potent form of magic-craft, one he was little versed in, and the offer made him, at first wary. She laughed, a little sadly, at the sudden stiffening of his frame. “Here,” she said, opening the sack so that he could see inside, “ look at the offering before you choose to accept, although I give you my word that there is no harm in it.”
In the sack was a box, made of something that looked thin and light to the touch, and all covered in words. Breathing deeply above it, to taste its magic, the soldier caught the scent of warmth and light and a sharp tang of distant memories that he couldn’t name but uncoiled some of the long-held tension at the base of his neck. He looked at the maid in confusion. “This is a valuable thing” he said slowly. She made no reply. “Why offer it to me?” the question was still wary. He knew the maid, had known her long years, but more by sight and listening to her lilting songs than by kith. He held no debt over her, was bound by no promise, no oath, and this was a kin-gift, or a payment gift. He didn’t understand the giving, and so was wary.
She smiled, again with sadness in the shadows the fire made on her face. “He is a bold trader,” she remarked to the fire and the night, “Asking reasons in exchange for his fire and his conversation, which by the signs he made should have been freely given. A bold trader, but a skilled one, for he must know then, that he is owed much already.” He frowned at her cryptic, almost teasing words, and opened his mouth, but his tongue was stilled by a flick of her dark eyes towards him. The river maiden continued. “Why offer it you? Many reasons. I shall give you three now, and maybe you can find more in the spaces between my words, if you listen sharp. The first reason is my own, the giving of a fine-wrought gift, unasked and unsought, maybe unwanted, to a near-stranger, without expecting anything in return. You see, I am practising to be a Writer, and to be a writer is to be a great gift-mage, giving unsought, and not needing reassurance that your gifts are valued. But that skill is a hard one, and must be practised, else the hurt and the wondering and the needing of thanks eat your word-magic up from the inside out, until you have nothing real left to say.”
She paused then, taking a slow breath before continuing, seeming a little shy at having spoken what she had, and edged her eyes away from his. “Second reason is yours, soldier. For I have seen you walking, sometimes beside my river, and sometimes a long way from it, and you walk light into the land here. Light and strength and potent, living magic into each of your steps and actions. I am not sure you mean to, or seek to, and I know that you do not do it seeking thanks, but by the way you live and move and have your being, my river and its valley (and I would guess, although I cannot say for sure, the other valleys around it, where you walk in the times I see you not) are made richer and brighter and well.” She looked out at the water, which held a second, flickering fire, matching their own, and the heavy stars above, in its mirror-smooth depths. “I am a servant of this river, where I live and which I love, and a worker of the magic that it wishes worked. Magic, you know is about balance, and ritual, token and gesture. You cannot be repaid, nor do you need repayment for the light you bring to the land you walk, but my river wishes the gesture made. As do I.”
“Finally, the third reason is a spell.” She looked up at him then, and her eyes danced with mirth and merriment. “There is a spell that makes the air thick and pungent between us, .” Here she named him by his True-Name and he stared at her, shocked. She laughed at the shock, and explained quickly, “Your eyes gave me your True-Name long ago. Sometime when I was singing for you, without realising it, and I caught you watching, and in your quiet-blue eyes, kingfisher-wing on a storm-greyed day eyes, I saw it. I thought you knew you’d given it to me. I didn’t mean to alarm you. You needn’t fear that I have dabbled in blood-magic and shadow-pacts to find it. I meant what I said about there being no harm in this gift.”
He watched her, still shaken, half lifting a hand as if to shield his indiscrete eyes. Instead, he traced them, his kingfisher-wing eyes (he smiled at her gift-mage’s over-generosity with words) over her face, seeking deception. He found none, but as the flames bent and flickered, something just under her cheek-bone, in that gentle hollowing that swept down to her jaw, winked at him. His half-lifted hand reached out for it, and he stroked his thumb across her skin, feeling it wriggle into the whorls of his finger-print at his touch. She started sharply, but did not pull away.
“ .” He said, without flourish or embellishment. It was her turn to be shocked, and at this she did pull away, raising her own hand to cover the place where his had been. “How-”
He cut off her question quickly, wanting to ease the fear he saw in her hazel-gaze. “It seems we both wear our secrets in our faces. The flames danced it out for me, unsought. You need not fear blood-binding or death-weaving from me either.”
She nodded absently, still holding herself a little distantly from him, and speaking to her bare feet rather than to him. “That… that makes sense enough. Like I said, there is a spell between us, an old, slow spell I think, although I am only come to awareness of it of late. I think that is why we find ourselves holding each other’s secrets so easily.”
She nodded again, “Your third reason, bright-footed soldier. A spell sung between the both of us, that I have begun to hear, and… have decided to dance to. Not because I am compelled, I am not so feeble a gift-mage as that, but because I wish it. And the gift… this gift… is an invitation, if you should wish to dance, also.” Her shyness at that drew her into herself, making her shadow small as the flames cast it across the ground.
The soldier shook his head a little, wishing she would speak plainer and not quite so much in riddles. “Does… does this spell have a name? I would not dance to that which I do not know.”
She squirmed at that, reluctant to be pinned to the absolute, the definite that he was asking of her. Then she stilled her shoulders and met his gaze.
“ .” She said, giving the use-name of the thing, and then scratching it into the ground beside her and holding out a grubby shard of mirror that she wore on a thong around her neck.
(It is common knowledge that if a spell wishes to share its True-Name, it can be seen in a mirror, in the use-name letters)
The soldier let out his breath in a sigh. “You do not trifle with petty magics.” Then he frowned at her, “There are words not to be thrown around so carelessly, as if they have little weight. There are consequences for that sort of silliness.”
She raised a sharp eyebrow at him then, “You who know my secret name, you tell me if carelessness is one of the letters in it.” Then she softened. “I’m sorry, I know this is sudden, all-of-a-time, and clumsy, but I am a river spirit and must run as the current carries me, and currents bend to the will of no man or woman. But…”
She reached out her hand for his, waiting, palm-up and seemingly vulnerable. “…but, there are those who would say that to give the impression of being able to carry a weighty thing lightly, is not a mark of carelessness, but of strength. Enough strength perhaps, me from my river, you from the path you walk, to balance fear, if not banish it entirely. And we would only be dancing, and only for as long as the spell holds…”
“The gift is a box,” The gift-mage said quietly, “Full of many things, which are in turn full of many things themselves. Like a word is a box full of meanings, perhaps many and perhaps none, and a sentence is a box of words.”
“And like a Story is a box full of sentences.” The soldier added, lifting the box from the sack to examine it in the fire-light.
“That,” nodded the word-mage, settling more comfortably, enjoying the fire’s warmth across her palm, “That and more than that also.”
And the river flowed and the stars burned, and the Story rolled on into the dark, and after that into the dawn.
(And if it’s an ending you seek, then I invite you to write your own, because fairy-stories do not follow all of the rules all of the time.)