We all sat on logs in a crescent around the fire that crackled and spat before us, darting eyes left and right as we waited. It was the fifth night of Vespers, and there was harvesting to be done, but we waited on our haunches by the hissing flame as old Sailmistress Bleccha made her slow, huddled walk down into the firelight.
I looked above Guire’s head at the moon that was rising directly behind him, as round and bright as a fat gourd-fruit of the folding fields, and I licked my lips as I thought about the crop that withered in the cool winds of first-winter. There would be a coldsnap this year, as there had been last year and the year before, a quick flashfreeze that sterilized and hardened the ground, and made it so that no decent thing could take root and grow. I rubbed my hands against a chill breeze, and smelled within it that sterilizing death.
After the first coldsnap of first-winter, the death throes of Frostfall would seize the land, and the true cold would settle to blanket the rolling hills in soft white frost. I glanced over at Synthia, my childbearer, with one little-Andre at her side and another at the teat, and yet another growing fat within her belly. I felt a twisting in my stomach as I thought of the summer stores. There would be enough, once I harvested the last of the gourd-fruits. There had to be.
My musings were cut off as the Sailmistress arrived into our midst, crouched and bundled as if already fending off the slicing gales that were yet to arrive with Great Winter. She gazed at each of us in turn, into the eyes of each brother who faithfully tilled her good soil, and the child-bearers that faithfully withstood the ravages of our progeny. It seemed to me that the eyes hovered over me unusual long, one as dark and deep as ocean chip-ice, the other a pupil-less white blindness that opened against the furrow carved into the left side of her face like an open sore. Her mismatched eyes shifted to Synthia, and her great gash opened into a toothless grin.
“And yet another you have poured into her, little Andre?” She had a deep croaking-throat voice that one felt more than heard, an oddly comforting bumble that resided in the heart as much as the stomach and mind. “You will surpass the Sire Above himself with your brood at this rate, though with winter coming, and three mouths to feed already…”
“Harvest was good this year, Greatest One,” I told her with a confidence that I did not truly feel within my heart of hearts. “And the little one will warm old Oppa’s bed in the bone-chilling cold. The little ones keep death away from the old and the sick. It is known.”
The old Sailmistress nodded and turned her back at me to take her seat at the forefront of the crescent, first stooping to lay her gnarled old staff against the back of the stump, the black nightstones socketing the eye-gouges of the bird skull that capped the head glittering in the flame. The flesh hung from her arms like old willow bark, fat and muscle long sloughed away by the uncountable winters of her wealthy age to leave behind but bone and skin and sinew. None, not even old Oppa, had been old enough to see what she had seen, and in the dimness of her memory she had forgotten much more than we would ever know. Regardless, she would tell but one story each year, and we listened with great interest each time, for it was a story as old and sacral as the waxing and waning of our spent moon.
The old crone slowly inched into her seat with help from elder brother Grimar, with every joint cracking audibly even against the hissing flame between us, and once settled upon the stump she let out a great sigh, like forlorn leaves scraping against one of the concrete plains where the sky-reaching towers of Old Future once stood.
She skittered spidery fingers along the ornaments glittering on her shawl, then seized a great ram’s horn from the fold. Taking a long swig from the hollow horn, she kept the liquid in her mouth without swallowing until her winter-pocked cheeks grew round with holding. Then she spat into the fire, which roared and turned into a single pillar of bright emerald flame. For an instant, I saw myself in that pillar, and it was as if the myriad tiny points of green that issued from my fiery self was the seed I had poured into the fertile soil of my childbearer to propagate the line that has never failed since First Summer. Then it was gone, and the flame was back to its ordinary reddish-orange hue, licking the sky in polite gratitude as it consumed the wood we fed it from the cedar forest.
The old crone was swaying seized in trance, eyes tight shut against the furious green that had already faded. Where I, narcissist and simpleton as I am, had only seen myself in the great flame, she had seen visions from the vastness of her fuliginous memory. I blinked to rid myself of the afterimage of the green pillar, but my reflected face remained burned into my vision, superimposing itself against the dying light.
I knew that the afterimages had taken the Sailmistress into their grip and that she swayed in the fits of revival, knowing once again the things that she had lost so many years ago. She hissed and spat, and cried out to men and cybers and Children and Gods who were not there, dead and ashes or left long ago. She would have fallen, or perhaps striven to dive into the flame, had it not been for brother Grimar holding her thin frame in tender hands. His lips grew tight as she screamed and thrashed against the restraint withholding her. The screams turned into a single, howling wail, then finally broke into a hoarse cough that lasted until I was sure that her tired old lungs must surely be rent to shreds.
Then her eyes shot open, one iceblue and one white, and she began to chant with rhythmatic alien cadence, broken only by shuddering coughs:
“It was a thousand quasi-revolutions of the Ring our sun and one ago, that fateful day when the Old Ones took from Gaia all that She could give, and in their unquenchable thirst traveled far into the black fertility of Sky beyond sky. They escaped Gaia’s ravenous greed within great columns of twisted black metal-” (The word metal rolled off her tongue with a cough, so that the cough and the word were one, a sound worse than curse) “and when they returned to Gaia, fattened by the bountiful offerings of distant creations, their hulls were coated with the microbes of black fertility. It was thus that we were planted, like seeds in fresh-tilled soil, to eventually rise as stewards of the world the Old Ones left behind.”
The old crone fell silent again, and her eyes drooped as the life left them. She slouched in Grimar’s hands, and weak convulsions shook her, aftershocks after the turmoil of memories that had been pulled from the darkest reaches of her mind. At last she began again, her croaking voice a distant avalanche pouring words into the ocean of night.
“It is from the soil whence we came, and to the soil we will return once the tiny creatures in our guts and our loins cease their helpful outgassings. Yet for the time we walk upon this rock delivered unto us, we serve as stewards to the Old Ones, tilling the soil faithfully under the guided light of Second Sol, the son of Old Sun, until… the day of Sun Return.”
The Ring was rising behind her as she trailed off and hung limp in Grima’s hands like a spent willow under a strong wind, a solid band of blood-red fire burning across the sky like the squinting eye of Old God gazing down dispassionately at His bedraggled noctulator. In that fury the Sailmistress became a silhouette of unadulterated black, as dark as the Sky beyond sky from whence she came, the fertile soil of black sterility from whence we all came. I opened my eyes wide to the great red fury, the aureate gift of those that had taken our star and thrust this world into darkness. In that brightness the unclean afterimage of the night past was at last washed away, and I leapt to my feet to receive the Auraubade in earnest joy of living as the world was reborn in fire Anew.