In place of the Nutcracker’s Clara (or, in some versions, Marie), there’s Marin Krespel, a solitary minstrel who peregrinates south-eastern England. His music, and his will to play the music, contain a unique magic. With the changing of the seasons, winter to spring, he is called back to his home village at the edge of the Devon moor, to his old and frail Aunt Dross. Her shop of toys and clockworks holds the secret entrance to a broken underworld kingdom, to Marin’s lover, Haldis, a prisoner of the evil, arrogant Ogstin Marv. During the transient time, Marin senses that now the power of his and Haldis’ music is enough to crack the shackles of enslavement, and fully return them to freedom and each other.
Between the play of light and dark, underground and above-ground, rests the imagery of the world’s slow return to spring, a planet whose tilt towards the sun is unhurried but constant. The heroes represent the triumph of light. Ogstin Marv and his court of vermin show the discomforting sense of isolation that can come with a long and bleak winter. Woven throughout are little odes to Imbolc, including St. Brighid’s reed crosses, little dolls made of earthen pieces, children with delicious names, snow that turns to milk—and knowing that your weaknesses can be overcome when you believe in yourself.
The Memory Collector
It was said that no one could stretch time.
No one could stretch time, souls, seasons with a power equal to Marin Krespel. At a young age, he fashioned life out of shards of glass, peeled clouds from the sky, saturated the moor in a million colours if he passed by.
He passed by once a year, when the smell changed in the air. Where he came from, he couldn’t be sure. The cascade of views ranged from the wilds of Cornwall’s shores to the sombreness of Somerset, to Devon’s dales and edges. Where he moved was as incalculable to him as where he stepped. A foot in front of the other, a path forged of discontent. Every place away from him had a value like that of home. He migrated along the coasts, playing the music he caught in the sea-born winds—until a moment came when the earth sighed and the trees released their frozen coats.
Upon a tumble of rock, spume and froth below, Marin cast his vision into the depths, remembered dark places and an ache in his chest. Into the case he set the violin, scarred and worthless but for the music only his fingers could draw from it. He set the clasps into place, the violin safe, and tried to find his way from the top of the world to the bottom of it.
After days of ambling, he met the rim of the Devon moor. The odours of it had altered, opening doors to set free the bleakness. The ponies he ignored, unable to regard them, their misshapen songs, forlorn eyes—empty mirages of the ponies he’d known before. The day the man with the scarred violin came, they ate well in a sultry draught unceasing.
Rough labourers along the road signalled hello to him. Marin, they whispered with their dirty faces drawn close, grubby hands wrapped at scythes. Marin, the man with the fish violin, but they knew nothing of him beyond that. He passed, they whispered; he left, they remembered songs they’d once forgotten.
He reached the edge of town, its white buildings, dark roofs, smoking chimneys. The clatter of industry and everlasting drudgery changed the din, tightened his muscles and set his mouth into a moue of uncertainty. He catalogued an odd inventory of figures around him, of eyeballs from unwatched windows falling upon him. A flash of opening doorways, boots by the dozens, and a twirl and flash of colours, voices, small radicals defying the interference of a hundred adults.
“Marin! Marin!” they cried and cried, happy faces ignited in the appearance of him, his straggly coat, untrimmed beard, wild hair with more white in it than they remembered. They tugged at the tails of his coat, dug around in his pockets, bombarded him with laughter, excitement, and bruised him slightly by their unabashed need to see him.
“You’ll get a song, you’ll get a song,” he repeated, hoping one would hear, and if one heard it spread like the fall of rock, like fire in their ears. The sea of children calmed, and parents came nearer, testing the influence of the wayfarer. He knelt to be at height with the children, never caring if he was equal their parents. “What have I got in my pockets?” An invitation for tiny hands to find the gifts in his pockets, but their failure to reach him as he stood and spun brought them into giggles again. Marin drudged to freedom the handmade gifts: dolls of fresh reeds and raggedy dresses, and square shields of rushes and string, knotted to perfection.
“Have you got anymore dollies, Mr. Fish Player?” applied one girl to him. “I’ve got a tiny sister at home.”
In his oversized hands, the diminutive shoulders of a redheaded girl, capped and aproned, and a nose made of a soft button that he pressed with a forefinger. “You’re Sage, aren’t you?”
“I am Sage.”
He knew their names, recalling them from when they were babies, when their parents, less frightened of him when help was needed, called him in to sing away sickness. The souls he aided, even those that he’d stolen from the king, latched to his music, stored, somehow, in the scars of his violin.
“She’s Sage,” said one girl, “and I’m Anise.”
“I’m Brandy,” said another.
Five other names inundated him. He heard a thrum from the case with the violin inside. It remembered; yet everything taught to him by life was lost if he failed to store it in a song.
“I’m Pommeray,” said a husky male voice that caused Marin to snap up his gaze. In the flesh, Pommeray, an old friend, a neighbour, still holding the kindnesses that’d passed between them. A hand came out, taking Marin’s, face shining with the pleasure of the greeting. Pommeray spread fingers over the caramel crown of a boy beside him. “This one’s mine, for lack of a better word; my grandson.”
Pommeray scattered the children when he crooked Marin’s elbow around his, walked them on through the valley of buildings.
“It is good to see you,” Pommeray said.
“You, too.” He winced deep-set eyes, a haven of blue, against the stark paleness of paint and contrasting roofs. “How long have I been gone this time? It’s paler here than it once was. The sun is different.”
“We lost a few trees in a storm last month. We had to cut them down, whitewash the houses to save them from the soot that showed. The light changed without us asking it to. We can see our breath when we breathe now.” Pommeray demonstrated, bursting a cloud through a half-open mouth with the hotness out of his lungs. “See? Remember when it always felt like night here. A thousand uncharitable days of gloom! But the roofs are blacker than ever. When the snowflakes fall, if they ever does, we watch them against the roofs and they look like falling stars. How long have you been gone?” He’d neglected to answer, but Marin’s tension wrung it from him. “Five years, thereabouts. What’s five years to you, h’mm? Everything continues, like you were never gone from it. The toy shop is still there, still minding the entry into your underworld.”
“It isn’t mine,” Marin recited positively. Pommeray had heard the story once, though, like music unheard for years, only remembered it precisely when the story unfolded in front of him.
They turned at a gentle curve, and Marin found Pommeray was right: Nothing had changed. There ahead, a carved wooden sign suspended on its post above a blue door: Dross Toys & Clockworks. He wondered how Aunt Dross could be within, for it seemed a scene painted from the backlogs of time. He might’ve come and gone from that blue door, under that sign, a handful of double-moons ago. Before he reached the crevice of his destiny, Pommeray stopped him, stared at him hard.
“He must be calling to you if you’ve come back again. He wants something. Perhaps you’ve saved too many souls to appease him,” he suggested, glancing furtively into the window of tiny mechanical toys on display, seeing only emptiness and blackness beyond, a metaphor of the rumoured world beneath gears and faces of time.
“I can never save too many souls,” said Marin, the base of his throat thickening, “and he has one that he will never let go.”
“No,” Pommeray disagreed vehemently, then laughed quietly at himself. “No, Marin. Not one. He has two. One is more a prisoner, and one is more a slave.”
A wordless bard stood motionless against this protrusion of blame.
“It has been fifty years, old friend,” Pommeray said, “since this began. All the clocks in Aunt Dross’s shop will keep ticking away the years, but only you have a power to make time silent. This must come to an end. All you know is winter,” he concluded, “and what happens when one of your songs forces you to remember spring?”
The announcement bell above the door sprang to life, and a girl in navy appeared under the apparatus. She was herself campanulate, narrow at the top and wide where her frock widened and left a ring upon the doorstep. Unafraid before strangers, she gave a slight curtsey, having heard about him and his magic all her life.
“You don’t know me.”
“You’re not my aunt in a young guise, I suppose.” He looked around. Pommeray had vanished around the corner ahead. The girl was at his elbow now instead. He offered it to her.
“I’m your cousin,” she said.
Marin held still. There was only a faint memory of her, a thread of twilight blue flung into his quilt of songs. “Saffron Marie. I used to sing about you to turtles and fireflies in Cornish ponds. Saffron Marie. Yes,” he said in a breath he could see, “I remember. My cousin.”
“I came to look after Aunt Dross, mind the shop a bit.” Her small features suddenly carried a caress of despair. “She’ll not want you to waste your time talking to her. No,” she stopped herself, then went ahead with his arm in her hand, under the sign, over the threshold, beyond the blue door, “better talk of it in here.”
Marin caught the melancholic tinkling of timepieces shelved around the oval room. For a shop of toys, his aunt’s and uncle’s and grandparents’ work of generations, the atmosphere echoed with more anguish than joy.
In the beat of seconds, Marin spoke. “What did you want to say? And where is Aunt Dross?”
“Upstairs. She’s up there much these days. I wish she would want to see you, but, you see, I know about the tale. I know about Haldis and Naria and Nefen, about Reda Ostara and Ogstin Marv.”
She recited easily the names that often ricocheted in the back of his mind, or bled from his soul into his heart, into his music. The world below that he tried to forget, but that punctured every song he sang, every note he urged from the violin.
For all this, he was unsurprised to hear Saffron Marie saying guarded things.
“I’m taking over for Aunt Dross. The shop. The guardianship. Everything.”
He conceded, tipping his head towards her. “Then it is your right to know.”
“I don’t want it to steal my soul like it has hers.”
Now he rose from the tip to shake his head. “You don’t know what a stolen soul is really like. She has hers. But it is latched to every article, gear, plate, whimsical design in this store. You have more to learn.”
Saffron Marie raced across the room to squeeze the truth from him. Anxiety and repression trembled her, sending her frock back and forth like the door’s bell. Her eyes flashed, bringing shine to the twilight thread woven into his life. He knew what she would ask before she dared question him.
“You love him, don’t you, Marin? Haldis, the one the king has trapped. Then it is time it ended. End your love or end the king’s reign.”
Marin remained unmoved, and in his stillness Saffron Marie trembled again.
“Marin, do something! You have the power,” she checked the rise of her voice, aware of the poised faces of time ogling her, keeping track of her, “the power to save him or destroy the king.”
“I can do neither if neither is willing to happen.”
Inside what shadow he’d plucked such a riddle, Saffron Marie couldn’t conclude. He’d walked too far to find his riddles, as far as he walked to find a conclusion to the cycle of destruction that moved him. The king of Nefen had captured the bard at the time when his music was still dust, and made of bone now the catenations held. She gripped his wrists, barring his dismissal, pleading for his life.
“This time,” she pressed the enormity of the thing into his eyes using the tunes of her soul, “this time, Marin—it is different. Aunt Dross has had her guardianship weakened, and the clocks have not transferred all their minutes to me yet, nor will they—not until the full moon is gone. You know the power of this moon, bringing with it the grand light of the returning sun. We measure all our time and all our being on those celestial things. I’ve heard it said that you can stretch out a season. Stop playing for winter. Play for spring.”
Marin scanned her, avidly, reproachfully. Pommeray had said much the same thing. How was he to give up his winter and face a spring without Haldis? “I cannot waltz into Nefen and Nuria and simply ask Ogstin Marv if he would now, after all these winters, give my love back to me. Haldis would not want me to.”
“He wouldn’t want either of you to be a slave. He wouldn’t want you to squander the time that’s been created. But you can’t. I have time in my hands, and I am giving it to you while I still can. Take it, Marin.”
He thought, seeing a tear in his plans, the end of his winter when snowdrops came, when wind and light shifted. He touched the edges of Saffron Marie’s face, seeing the shimmer of skill and influence in the space where their skin met. Time was already in her, weak beneath her command. She had until the full moon waned, and then the immortality of time would be upon her for unknown decades. It would leave her when the shift was necessary, when the sun rotated its energy and when—when he needed time to be stationary.
“Don’t waste it,” Saffron Marie said. From a corner cupboard, disturbing a sleeping cat, she brought out a familiar brown canvas sack. She heaved it into him. His arms wrapped around it, catching the aroma of dirt, cave, bleak and uninterrupted wilderness. Her eyes were full of aqua pearls and promises. “You simply must go, now, before the transfer is complete.”
He had no argument; he was unprepared for battle. “I’m unable to fight a war.”
“There is no war, merely an uprising. You can handle an uprising, can’t you? It’s for you and Haldis. How long do you want to be at the mercy of his call? You’ve been stretched by your own music, made immortal by false immortality, by forgetting that there is such a structure as time. Your music protects you, but even music, the moment it’s neglected, must die.”
She pushed him from her path, edged to the grandfather clock on the inside wall, between staircase, kitchen, workshop. The owl carved at the top unfurled its massive wings, blinked scaled metal plates over painted wooden eyes of green. Saffron Marie yanked at the double-door handles to the pendulum inside, the weights and chains and mastery of displayed time. The owl’s wings stopped, its eyes shut. A fading whirr of gears let out a tumble of wind like a sigh of reprieve. The hands fell limp, minute at six, hour at six, collected at six. Two black, misshapen claws appeared from each the left and right side, one grabbing the pendulum and pulling it back, the other grabbing the chains and weights, pulling them aside. Another faint draught rose from the dimness, smelling like the canvas sack, like his violin on damp Devon days, like wet rock and chalk and the unremembered spice of ancient rain.
He had to go. Haldis was closer than ever: Marin could feel him pressing dreams into his mind. The king would know immediately when the bard stepped into his domain. He would have little time.
Again, he turned to Saffron Marie, held her chin. “Time,” he said, as if calling her by name.
He stepped in, twisting and turning among the gears, slipping into the wood. Behind him, in Time, he heard the bell, angled to look. But it was too late. The doors closed with an unprecedented bang. He winced, forefinger hovering over a break in a panel of glass. His skin got caught, snagged, broke until it bled. The picture behind the glass distorted, snapped, crystallised into an unreal mosaic.
He heard nothing, not the forward motion of time or the breath of Time.
Was there another way out if one was lost to him? Now he had no choice but to reach Haldis. Only Haldis understood his own creation.
The steps that circled downward had once been covered in tiles of copper and gold, and may be, still, buried beneath soot and pebbles. It was a capacious place, high, wide, nowhere in the scheme of the kingdom. Memories of better years, of Reda Ostara’s rule, glimmered and shone in the walls as he passed. He could almost read them like hieroglyphics. He was made of music, poetry, and had spent five years absorbing astral light. In the depth of everywhere, amid nothing and stuck in nowhere, he emanated his own glow. He hummed and the light of him widened, the gleams of the past, stuck in the walls, shone brighter, flashed blue, white, gold.
At the bottom of the stairs, a phalanx of the king’s hussars in rat-skin busbies. Their emotionless black eyes caught a glint of his light, the edges of their scabbards, the hilts of their swords, the edges of their guns. Marin, motionless, heard a whistle of astonishment. The platoon parted, six on one side, six on the other. Between them, the whistling figure, broad but flat, as if he had been hammered well against an anvil, thin, wraith-like. Marin had a feeling the soldier could be bent with the reverb of D-flat off his violin.
The whistle ended on a low note, but not D-flat. He was unknown to Marin, his raiment suggesting a high rank within the cloistered king’s army. “Marin, the bard of fishes. Returned.” His language was that of the world below: long in spots, clipped at the edges of consonants. But his laugh was everything it shouldn’t be: too long, too deep, holding too much the caterwaul of a nocturnal beast. “Bard of fishes, we meet at last. I’m Euvard, head of the king’s guard. We could feel your light from the back of the caves.”
“I could smell your stink from the back of the world,” Marin said, unsure why. “If you know me, then you know why I’m here. Take me to Haldis.”
He cackled again. “All in good time. The king wishes to see you first. He’s asked for you every morning for five years. Haldis stopped asking for you five years before.” He hoped to send a needle into the bard’s heart, but found nothing to hit there.
“He wouldn’t have need.”
Marin passed Euvard, sending a momentary glow upon the guard. Euvard patted buttons of his coat, swatted at something dark that showed up in contrast on the back of his hand; he chased the shadows created by the light and let it anger him. He growled through elongated teeth, stepping after the bard, latching him, smashing him against the nearest wall. The tip of his finger landed in front of Marin’s face. “You are lucky, you singer of fish songs, that we let you strut your way into our world, let you stay so you can appease the appetite of the king. But don’t think for a minute that we’re not watching you. One false move, one ripple of your arrogance that shows as brightly as your inner gleams—I will skin you and feed your flesh to swine.”
Marin declined having Euvard near him. Against Euvard’s abdomen, he spread a ball of energy, a white that brightened. Euvard flew back by yards, would have gone farther but that he met with a wall, and slid down it, stunned.
“You’re made of dust and rock,” Marin said to him, “and I’m everything you’re not.”
In the king’s dining hall, Ogstin Marv noted the loss of his foremost guard. He pinched the end of his under-nose whiskers. “Euvard will never learn from his mistakes.” Off the chair built of bone and stone, Ogstin Marv spread his cape of rat pelts trimmed in the fur of other mutilated things. Before Marin Krespel, he straightened, sucked in a breath as if he’d never have another. He forgot his happiness and remembered his pain. He analysed the bard, searched for missing pieces of his soul, the absence of love that might make death come quickly to him. “You are changed, old friend. Am I not also changed? Have I not grown fatter?”
“I wish to see Haldis.”
“Why must you always waylay our chitchat? How am I to get to know the man who wants to destroy me if you never want to dine with me and my court? Always, with you, it is a longing to see your prince. My prisoner, the prince. He’s not as fat as me, but he is a great deal cheaper, dirtier, and madder than he ever was. I think he has forgotten you, Marin. Unforgettable you. Isn’t that the way of love? But Haldis is nothing to me now but a burden. I need him to keep this place functioning. I need him to bring you to me.”
“I don’t come for you. I come for Haldis. This was his kingdom before your rats infested it, bringing filth and sorcery with you.”
“We can’t help what we bring. I remember,” Ogstin’s eyelids, without lashes, tightened as he melded a picture of broken images, “I remember this place when it was beautiful, when it glowed like you glow now, when it smelled of delicious foods, full of fine jewels, and time was not an accident but a utensil.” A groan creaked from his insides as he shifted uncomfortably on tiny feet. “If you are going to kill me and reclaim this realm for your love, you had better do it quickly, Marin, or I will crack Haldis in twos, in threes, in fours!” He heaved his final word into a wheezy guffaw, thrust it into the high tops of the room, until the ground of the Devon moor shook with it. Members of court laughed with him. He thrust up a paunchy fist: silence returned.
“Sad,” he said to Marin, “sad that you only come to see Haldis and not to share in our delights. But there is something off about you, something different about your light. I don’t know what it is.” He winced, grimaced, looked the bard up and down, finding nothing amiss. “I can’t see it, but I know it’s there. Then again, I haven’t seen you in five years, and perhaps my eyesight is not as strong as it was once. Unlike, I suppose, your love for your memory of this place, or your boyhood friend, your lover I had imprisoned when I usurped the throne, beheaded his parents and fed them to my pets. If I did not need your magic, Marin, I would do the same to you. I would’ve done the same to Haldis.”
Marin faced him with a dare. “Try, and see what time lets you do.”
Ogstin blew out a breath through flaring nostrils, stepping down, revisiting the power of the bard. “If I had known what the princeling had done to you, I would’ve held you, too.” They were his final words to Marin. He sneered, wrenched around the rat furs of his cape flapping, smacking the ground and Marin’s shins. “Take him to Haldis. And bring me Euvard, even if he’s in a casket!”
Haldis had a place in a cell of ice in the coldest side of Castle Nuria. In his dreams, Marin walked there, up a hundred steps, across a bridge over a cascade, and down another hundred steps to a stretch of hall like a northern plain: covered in snow, flakes falling from calcified stalactites. The path across the snow had been worn by the boots of soldiers. Wild creatures, poised like shadows, soon scurried to safety away from him. Marin saw where they went and how swiftly. He couldn’t stop the thought of the broken clock in the toy store. He envisioned the dead owl on the clock’s top, suspending time and entrapping Marin forever in the once-beautiful Nefen, now the hell of Ogstin Marv’s disgrace.
The snow carried on, catching a beam of light through a crack in the wall high above Haldis’ head. And there was Haldis. The images of dreams and moments of the past crashed continuously in Marin’s mind the nearer he came to holding Nefen’s lost prince.
“Marin,” Haldis said, reaching through bars of ice. A hand, a whole arm, thrust through, caressed his face, a thumb over a small smile. The whoosh of water ended the prison. The ice melted at the touch of Marin’s light. Haldis held still, thinking of love and time. “How long has it been?”
“They tell me five years. Haldis,” he poured them upon one another, the joy of the reunion wiped away, the love as rich as a hunger, “how did you think to call to me now? It’s a time of transience. It’s transient time, in fact.”
“I don’t know,” Haldis said. “I smelled something different in the ice. Euvard twitched more. The king grew afraid, twirled his whiskers more. They stopped bringing reeds, rags, shells for my projects.” His palms, small and flat, rubbed against Marin’s chest, wound at his throat and through his hair. “Dimensional again. When I think about you, you’re only a vision caught in strands of songs. Memories are exhausting. They’re real, but useless.” He nibbled at Marin’s mouth, left a flick of his tongue there, finding the taste of crystalline bits of oceans and olivine, hints of the upside of the world. Then he remembered, back-pedalled, watched the guards wait outside the ice room’s door. “What transient time?”
“I don’t have time to explain,” he said, ignoring the pun. From the sack, he returned Haldis’ violin to him, with the crack in its board, the mended crack in its neck. Hurriedly, he put together the bow and checked the reed for rosin. “But this ends now. Today. You won’t be a prisoner anymore, and I won’t be Ogstin Marv’s slave. Take this.” He thrust the violin’s into his lover’s hands. “And pray that you remember how to play.”
Haldis required no extra moment to rehearse. He struck a note, drew it out of the whining, cracked violin. The ice around them whitened, blanched, turned to puddles of milk. The light from the space between rocks grew, brightened the shifting room. Marin coiled fingers over the violin’s neck.
“You remember.” The two smiled together, a spark of happiness overcoming the gloom. “But stop or we’ll have an avalanche on our hands.” On instinct, he reached for Haldis again, kissed him hard again, and drew away to watch a fleck of gold lightning disappear between them. “Time,” he said to the lightning, as if calling it by name. He slipped his gaze back to Haldis. “You’re the only one alive now who can recall what this place was like before, and you remember Reda Ostara, your mother. She died knowing memory would save you. Now, it’s time for us to save ourselves. We can outshine Ogstin Marv.”
“No—” Haldis protested, with Marin’s fingers racing to quiet his lips.
“Yes. Transient time. A switch of guardians. His power is weakest now.”
Haldis tightened his shoulders, released a spray of old resentment. “He thieved that power.”
Marin had a moment to be amused. An impassioned Haldis, imprisoned for years, still youthfully in favour of justice. “You can steal it back. Your music and magic, my light, and we’ll shift the world to the way it was.”
“What if he—” Haldis paused, lowering his voice, though the guards at the door failed to move. “What if he defeats me?”
“The only defeat will be his, Haldis.” Marin stretched a fingertip the length of Haldis’ face, twirled a loose black hair, pressed his lips to the dazzled skin. He let go, unlatched the case to a violin he hadn’t seen since he stood over the sea. The scarred wood held the mark of a fish in one corner, a star in another, and a series of scratches that resembled a lay of moorland tors. He had light and memory in his music, not the magic of Haldis’ blood.
At the rim of the iceland cell, they found the guards, the reasons for the guards’ disinterest in them. The milk of ice Haldis had dispelled covered the guards in a robe of snow. The cavern of whiteness ahead had been reduced to alabaster splotches, to rivulets that collided with one another on their way to the nearest outlet. It stank like a hectarage of soil after winter had closed. Haldis, now aware of what he could do, what he could create, what his music had never been able to do before, stared, wide-eyed, fascinated. But Marin grabbed his hand, brought them into a run that didn’t stop until they ploughed their way through guards, through doors turning to ash, to the breaking throne of the king.
Haldis skidded to a halt, rushed out a note, any note, from the cracked violin. Like overturned pins, the courtiers of the room collapsed. Their skins shrivelled, took on the shape of mice newly dead. Shocked, Marin waved a hand, silencing Haldis, and both noted the music had no influence on Ogstin Marv. He rose as he clapped slowly, mockingly.
“Well done, little princeling. You’ve dirtied my rooms with the rubbish of vermin, and turned my kingdom back to soot and stone. But how will you make that cracked violin of yours sing loud enough to return me to what I really am?”
“I won’t,” Haldis said, sensing the end of things, as Ogstin Marv sensed the end of his reign, “but you are not the only one who trapped my power in filth, or the only one who trapped Reda Ostara in a thousand scattered memories. What do you think the bard of the fishes has been doing for fifty years?”
Bewildered, Ogstin Marv glared at Marin, the bard with the violin poised, the bow at the ready.
“I’ve been collecting memories,” Marin said—and pulled the bow down slowly over an eager string. It was not D-flat—but B-flat. He’d stored Reda Ostara there, and in the notes that came after, in a song he’d been composing, every note for every half-year, and waiting until the time of transience, the shift of the energies of a full moon and an incoming sun, when he could play it with a resonance that shocked.
All Ogstin Marv heard was a dissonant dirge. He plugged his ears, writhed, lost his command of self—and fell to the ground. Robes of rat skins caught no form there, but the skins began to wriggle as Marin played on. He hit B-flat again, dragging more and more of his memory of Reda Ostara into the palace where she’d lived, let her voice fill Castle Nuria and all the caverns of Nefen anew.
The wriggle beneath the rat skins came into the light: Ogstin Marv showed himself for what he really was: a serpent of black and green. Still alive, Ogstin Marv slithered towards the only shelter he could see: a portal of blackness ahead that swallowed undesirables and urchins and pests.
Marin saw the serpent, hit another note, climbed into a frenetic set of eighth-notes, G and E back and forth, ending again on B-flat. The blackness took shape, turned into a ghost, a shaped memory of the queen.
“Reda Ostara,” Marin thought. He heard Haldis whisper her other name: “Mother.”
She took the snake into the shadows of her hands. She lifted him, stretched him like he was time or a season under her rule. In a blink, he became a violin. Smiling, Reda Ostara played, mimicked Marin’s song—the echo of the final double-notes faded as did the ghost of the last monarch of Nefen.
Marin and Haldis had a chance to clasp one another’s hands, exchange a look that said a million synonyms of happiness—but the foundation of the room crumbled with the loss of the serpent king’s magic. The air began to smell too sweet with its aromas of mystery.
They gathered their violins, ran through tumbles of rock to the staircase that led to the toy shop, the clock. Marin elbowed the inside of the glass doors, but nothing that should occur did occur. The earth quaked, and the gleams of those forgotten pillars of gold and silver were soon brighter, more brilliant, and wider than before. One mast of the staircase mouldered, an entire pillar of gold and stone. The avalanche Marin had feared was no longer of snow, but of everything that held up the earth below the moor.
The staircase slanted, and they had no choice but to tumble after it. Blinded by dust and gold, lightheaded with the ancient smell of sweets, Marin and Haldis sprinted on. While he chased Marin, Haldis unearthed his projects from his pockets. He tossed a cross of reeds into the air, grabbed Marin’s hand and held them still. Marin saw the cross suspended in a miniature cyclone of air, watched it spin until it shone with the same gold light reflected off half-covered chandeliers. In another pocket, Haldis found a doll Marin had made of twigs, reeds, covered in rags and shells. He flung it into the vortex, watched, with Marin, as it was sucked in.
“The magic’s breaking,” Haldis said. “If we jump in—”
“Jump in—to that?” Marin’s voice cracked. “No.”
“If we jump in, it might take us away.”
“We could land in the sea.”
“We could land on the moor. That’s better than this place.” He united their hands once, obliterating Marin’s doubt, and listened to the sounds of the crumbling palace louden every second they hesitated. “Leave it to me. Let me save you for once, instead of you and your light always saving me. This old kingdom of mine can’t sustain us!” He shouted over the rise of wind, the crash of rocks and debris. Without a thought, only a heady look, he grabbed Marin and pushed off with his feet.
Almost instantly, they hit solid ground. Everything was silent, and the sky above them smooth, colourless, pale. Something soft landed on Haldis’ face, but cold, without the warmth of Marin’s kisses.
He met Marin’s incredulous regard an arm’s length from him. Marin fished a snowflake from his face, found instead that he held the petal of a tree flower.
In the village, children swam around them, crying out the name of the bard with the fish carved in his violin. Their ululations of joy had brought forth a gentlemen from his home. Marin was welcomed home by Pommeray.
“How long has it been this time?”
Pommeray smiled, glanced at the disheveled but handsome man with Marin. “Three weeks.”
Haldis and Marin heard heavy breaths in time with heavy footfalls, and, around the corner, Aunt Dross, bent and frail and clutching a cane. Beside her, the madonna in a bell-shaped dress. Saffron Marie spotted them, knew them by the imperfect violins in their hands. She clutched at her breast, and smiled in relief.
lives in Ohio, USA, dreams of better things, so writes stories to plunge into other worlds and other lives. Find her tales at www.breezydaystories.com, and grab her secular (and free) holiday novella, The Carols of Holly House, released in December 2013.