The snow was piled a human’s height this year, taller in some places. “Baba Yaga hides fresh secrets this winter,” went the saying.
And so the Lantern Festival was invested with an unusual fervor in Urdengard this year (and in most of Domovogrod). Everyone was ready for spring’s triumphant return.
Every torch, lantern, and flaming branch was pressed into service for the parade. A flotilla of candles was released on the lake. Magical floating lights were prepared en masse to ascend to Khors’s threshold.
It was just the sort of desperate hope that gave Clattermap a warm feeling in his coin purse. Selling magical and clockwork lights to soulworn fishermen was the best business he’d found in a year. People were hungry enough for comfort that they’d even buy from a gnome, selling from a rickety booth on a side street. And they paid well for his clever treasures.
A woman approached Clattermap’s booth. She wore silver rings braided into her long auburn hair and smelled faintly of sulfur. “I need to do something about this darkness,” she said.
“Good lady, I have just the thing,” he said. His smile contained perhaps two too many teeth. “This clockwork robin’s breast shines when you sing. When the dawn hymns are sung, it changes from red to yellow, signifying the—”
“Put your considerable girth between me and the crowd, else it will look as though we are breaking in,” Ivka said slyly as his nimble, scaly hands furiously worked a set of picks. Gremmel, twice his height and four times as thick, glared at him, glanced over her shoulder and did the best she could to mask the kobold’s efforts from the Zobecki throng making its way down the busy market street.
“Aren’t we?” she replied huskily. Knowing Ivka’s dislike of cramped spaces, she pressed in close to rebuke his casual insult. Ivka’s eyes widened in alarm at his imminent envelopment.
“Well no, Haradus invited us. Three bells after high sun. The old wizard never let us down before, something must be wrong. Yes, what kind of friends would we be if we didn’t check in on him, duty to our good and dear friend is all.”
“Do you always practice your lies before you need to use them, Ivka?”
“Only with you!” he replied.
“I hate to admit it, but you are right, Haradus has never missed an appointment.”
“Like clockwork!,” Ivka couldn’t resist the pun even if Gremmel was too thick to appreciate it. He imagined the gearforged mage’s strange copper brow furling angrily at him. “Okay Gremmel, stand back. The lock is vanquished, I will now remove the wards.”
“Are you madder than the Ruby Despot? Your lute against the wizard’s spells? If I’d known I never would have…” Before Gremmel could finish, Ivka made several quick motions and barked out a few unintelligible words. The door creaked open.
The eastern Margreve was desolate, an endless waste of sparse trees. Finna crunched through falling autumn leaves, her footsteps echoing against the silent, lifeless backdrop.
Her hunger hadn’t been so bad yesterday, for she had gorged herself on candied apples at the festival the night before. Finna loved apples. Every autumn after harvest time she would run to the orchards and choose a few of the bruised apples left on the ground. Never pick an apple off a tree, her father had told her, because that belongs to someone. The candied apples had tasted even sweeter this year because they were especially for her.
The harvest festival was for remembrance, her mother said. Centuries ago, a terrible sickness had rolled out of the Margreve into the tiny village of Lundar, nestled against the forest on the Rothenian Plain. Only one young maiden was brave enough to seek aid from the forest itself. Within a few days, a thrush descended into the town square and spoke with the voice of the maiden.
Nera thought she had never seen a man so strong, which was funny, really. The rocks Johr piled onto the cairn were so small. She sat with her back to his travel bags and watched him wander across the blasted land in search of stones. Pulling her cloak around her shoulders the wind played with the expensive fur of the collar and hood. She squinted into the dimming light as Khor’s chariot raced west.
The light of the day faded away and still her guide laboured to shape the cairn. She knew only too well what it was like to lose a brother. The Wastes were no place to bury loved ones, but sometimes the gods do not give you a choice.
The Ley Line judges have made their decisions, and today we are happy to announce the SIX finalists and their stories for this contest (presented in alphabetical order by author’s last name):
“A Place Without Time” by David Amburgey
“The Apple Thief” by Maggie Hoyt
“A Done Deal, a Final Act, and a Parting” by Chris Lozaga
“Lantern Festival” by Jeff Quick
“Five Finger Discount” by Stephen Rowe
“Ice Maiden’s Heart” by Troy E. Taylor
Congratulations go to each of these authors! We will be posting the stories next week and setting up public voting after the stories are all out there for you to read.
In the meantime, many thanks go to those who submitted their work and the excellent judges who made time to read and rate these stories. Again, congratulations, finalists!