Winter Festivals

A typical "Christmas" celebration amongst the Nioneska, a northern tribe of magic users seen through the eyes of a member returning home for the festival and experiencing the more supernatural aspect of their way of life and be with family again.
A winner of the Advent Calender writing competition.

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11. A Gaurdian & Friend

Thorne frantically shoved his hands in his pockets to look for his gloves and forced his arms through the sleeves of his coat. The fog that had covered his mind and dulled his senses suddenly began to clear. Things that he couldn't feel or felt in small doses before were more noticeable again. They were more real to him. Especially the ethereal glow of the elk he followed into the forest and down along the river.

He feared to utter a single word, lest he frighten it away. But at the same time Thorne almost felt like it wouldn't abandon him. Every so often when it put a fair distance between them, it would stop and wait for him to get within a few yards' distance and bound off again. Thorne's mind raced. Why had no one else seen it? Why hadn't anyone followed him? Surely they would notice....right?

Though his thoughts were clear, his body was still drunk and he struggled with it. Struggled with staying on his feet. The last time he tripped on his endeavor, it was on a log. It was dusted with snow. Dusted. Only a light covering. And Thorne saw clumps of moss still on it. It was a if winter had only touched this place for a moment before leaving it alone. He stayed in his place on the ground, puzzling and puzzling over why it was that way. But the glow distracted him. It cast his shadow onto the log and the other trees that hid the sky from view. Thorne imagined they made a pretty green canopy when they had foliage.

"You are a silly boy," a voice said calmly. The voice was warm and inviting, yet strong and stern.

Thorne looked at the source of the light and saw the elk standing tall before him. Its antlers were still decorated with bells and flowers and it was just as tall as it had been.

"I've had to keep a close eye on you since you came home," it added.

Thorne slowly stumbled to his feet, wary of this spirit. Every story he'd ever been told involving spirits came to mind. Most with the lesson, be wary of a spirit even if it means you no harm. 

"What do you mean by that?" Thorne asked nervously toying with the stray threads in his pockets.

The spirit threw its head back as if it were laughing. And Thorne heard the hint of laughter but it was swallowed up by the blood rushing through his ears. His heart pounded against his chest and threatened to break his ribs. He tried to back away discretely, but found himself flat on his back when he tripped over a rock and fell over the log. Thorne sucked in air when the elk stooped down and nuzzled his knees with its nose. His heart nearly stopped entirely when it was mere inches from his face.

"Why did you follow me if you are afraid?" It asked him. A valid question. Thorne found himself wondering the same. He retraced every step that led him here. But instead of stopping at the party, he found himself recalling every event that seemed off or out of place. Being rescued, the people he saw appearing in unlikely places, and it ended when he was helped by this spirit when he participated in the archery games.

Swallowing and attempting to sit up, Thorne replied "You've been with me all this time, haven't you?"

The beast almost seemed to smile, then changed shape. It morphed like cream in coffee or smoke on air. It turned into the woman who had saved him, then a child, and then a bird. It cycled through these as if deciding which form it should take, finally settling on the woman. Her appearance was similar to how he'd met her, but she was still fuzzy around the edges with a dreamlike quality. She didn't ever fully come into contact with the ground or the log. She was faded into nothing where her body would have met these. "So now you recognize me. But there is more reason than that for you to be here," she said. She offered a hand and pulled Thorne up onto the log.

Thorne took a moment to process what she said. His brain worked as if through sludge and thick mud. He nodded sluggishly. Her words fell upon his ears, which were deaf from the shock of it all. She noticed this and laughed to herself. "You only need to stay here, and be ready to protect who you may find. Call on me for guidance when you are in need," she told him. Her eyes were gentle and a deep forest green like Thorne's.

Staring into them, Thorne was hypnotized, feeling only safe and warm. Truly, a warmth radiated from her that kept out the bitter cold. The trance he was under lulled him to sleep, safely encompassed by an elk. The fur tickled his nose and the soft nose nuzzled his cheek. He could still hear the music as if it were a distant memory playing over for him. The Northern Lights were far brighter than before. Oranges, pinks, greens, purples, blues all mingled together in the night sky above him. But what he didn't know, was a little girl was wandering. Little Maura found her way to him and curled up in Thorne's arms. Thorne almost heard someone say "Right where you needed to be." And he slept, safe and warm with an elk and a little girl.

 

Thorne awoke to the sound of shouting and crunching steps. He looked around and found himself in a circle of melted snow and flowers growing around him. In his arms, his little cousin Maura laid sleeping away, unaware of the shouting. Her strawberry curls were all he could see of her. Her face was buried in his chest and his arms hid the rest of her from view.

Unsure of what to do or why he was out there, Thorne sat up still cradling Maura and searching the forest for someone to explain what had happened. He wanted nothing more as he slowly began to realize that he must have been out there all night, asleep. And Maura, barely old enough to eat without making a mess, had been out there too. A scattered memory flashed in his brain. Of her crawling into his arms late in the night. He wanted to know more. And suddenly, a blue wispy bird appeared on the log beside them. It flew around Thorne's head, making hardly a sound, before flying off into the woods somewhere.

Thorne was perplexed. Something gnawed at the back of his memory. Something important. He didn't know how far he was from home. All he knew was that he was close to the river. It gurgled and swished madly a ways off. So, seeing that as his best option of getting his bearings, Thorne got to his feet and began to moved towards the river, leaving his ring of flowers behind. Leaving behind the sense that something going on.

Maura gave a yawn and looked around over Thorne's shoulder. "Where are we?" She asked curiously.

"We're by the river, Maura," Thorne replied, still drowsy and his head beginning to throb. He kicked himself at the thought of drinking away his memory of last night. He knew better. His self criticism was brought to an end when he heard a snarl. Out of reflex, he had Maura climb onto his back and made sure her tiny hands had a hold of his buttons.

When the creature emerged, Thorne got another flash of memory. In the glossy surface of the beasts teeth, Thorne saw a ghost of someone he knew. He knew them and at the same time, he didn't. There was no name that came to mind that matched the face. What did was one word: protect. Not risking the time it would take to figure out what the creature was, Thorne began to run through the snow. He didn't dare look back to see how close it was. But he had the feeling slowing down even a little would be dangerous. A sudden swiftness overtook him. He felt weightless. The same way he'd felt during the games. The same way he' d felt last night.

Daring to look over his shoulder, he saw a pair of wide eyes stare back. Maura was frightened. Her muscles were tense and her nails dug into the fabric of Thorne's clothes. But what he saw just behind them was frightening. A beast like a wolf with shoulders like a bear and tail as long as itself and massive claws the size of daggers, all covered in wiry hair. Its eyes were fiery and angry. All this was burned into his memory in a single glance before he looked forward again and thought of how he could make their escape. The distance between them grew, and with it a glimmer of hope.

The racing river ran alongside them, offering one alternative that made him shiver. But he caught sight of a canoe sitting on the bank, ready to run the river.

Thorne looked back and slowed down to put Maura safely in. She was scared stiff, unable to make a sound. Her eyes were massive marbles, glossy from frightened tears. He ripped his jacket off and draped it over her. It was massive compared to her small frame. Then he pushed the canoe out into the river. He waded out to his waist, wincing at the cold and fighting off the current. Thorne's feet slipped on the slick rocks and dunked him beneath the surface of the choppy waves.

"Unkie Thor!"

A mouthful of water and a jump and Thorne bobbed amongst the waves. He took the chance to drag the canoe to a slow spot in the river and climb in. His was soaked and shivering, but breathed a sigh of sudden and complete relief when the monster looked onto the river and ran away, pursuing the sound of a twig snapping and a soft glow disappearing in the trees.

Maura put her tiny hands on his knee, bringing his attention back to her. She was trying to hand him his coat back.

"T-t-tha-nk y-you, M-Maura," Thorne stammered, wiping a wet lock of hair off his forehead. He took his wet undercoat and shirt off and put the heavy coat back on. The warmth was pleasant. Maura crawled into Thorne's lap and held onto him by the button. Thorne sniffled. He looked back up and saw a wispy blue bird again. It flew across the river and sat on the edge of the canoe. With it, it brought the heat of a fire and the comfort of home. And standing at the front the bird almost seemed to direct it to the shore on the other side. Safety.

Then Thorne suddenly remembered everything. Everything from the night before. And he was grateful. Though he still shook and shivered, he knew nothing would hurt them until they were home.

The canoe slid up onto the bank enough for Thorne to get out. With one arm holding Maura, he used his free hand to pull it up further so it wouldn't drift away. From there, he gave a nod to the bird, the best he could do in place of a bow of respect, and trudged through the snow. He was near the hill he'd been on yesterday. He knew where they were. So he forced himself on while Maura hummed to herself.

Just on the hilltop, he saw people pointing and shouting. They'd been found. And the satisfaction in that was enough for Thorne to stop beneath a tree and relax. Enough for him to wait for them. And he didn't say a word, didn't make a sound when they scooped them both up and took them home.

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