WINTER FIRE by Kelly Komm
The first time, Brenna is seven. She is alone in the forest as the air grows still and cool, and she stops. She first notices them on the leaves of the bush; the intricate lines are unlike anything she’s ever seen before, as though the leaves have sprouted spots of spiders silk. But a moment later, they are gone. They have melted into a drop of water, rolling to the ground. Transfixed, she blinks up at the gaps between the trees, watching the flakes fall toward her. She can see that the sky above the canopy of the forest has become an endless expanse of cloud. She holds her breath as one drifts down, almost hesitant on the wind, landing tenderly on the end of her nose. Brenna would never forget the sound of her flesh sizzling.
Branches whip her as she bursts through the trees, her frantic feet guiding her home. Mama Tala had known it was coming—she’d ordered Brenna to stay inside. As usual, Brenna hadn’t listened and had snuck out when the old woman nodded off after her tea. Mama Tala said it is the fire inside Brenna that made her do naughty things. Now that fire had led her outside, when she should be warm inside the cottage. And she was burning.
The old woman was right, of course, for the white-rain now fell with a vengeance. Brenna’s exposed face was scorching; dozens of flakes sear her skin. The collected flakes on the ground soak into her foot wrappings, practically dissolving the scraps. Running barefoot in the snow turns her dash home into a sprint across burning coals. Her vision blurs with tears, but she still runs toward the fuzzy image of her bark and thatched cottage on the hill beyond the forest.
“Mama Tala!” she cries as she bursts through the door.
The old woman starts as the child collapses onto her lap, her tiny hands, face, and feet covered in bubbling blisters. The woman shakes her head as she carefully lays Brenna on her cot; the child whimpers and drifts in and out of consciousness. Mama Tala boils rags and brings out the jar of salve she was given almost eight years earlier. She blows a fine film of dust off the lid before she lifts it. The shimmering mixture inside is bewitching. Whorls of cream glisten and shine like stars.
Carefully undressing the child, she applies balm to the now oozing wounds on Brenna’s face and hands before wrapping them in the rags. Thankfully the girl’s threadbare scarf has protected most of her head, for only parts at the front now lack hair. Her shawl and shift protected her arms and body, thank the Gods. Her feet are still twitching with the spurts of puss, and several of her toenails have already fallen off.
Brenna is now passed out, the pain likely too much for her. Mama Tala rubs the salve onto her wounds sparingly. This little bone jar is all she has. The creme does not spread well; the jar empties too quickly. Mama Tala is able to just cover the last of the girl’s blisters with the final smears of salve. The scent of eucalypti and pine and unknown herbs are finally beginning to dampen the scent of burning flesh. Mama Tala sets down the empty jar and stands to pull aside the scraps covering chinks in their walls. Hopefully a breeze will drive out the rest of the stench.
She hangs a kettle on the fire, and prepares tea leaves in hers and Brenna’s cups. The girl will need strength to recover, and she herself will need strength to keep the girl well. The old woman eases back into her chair, as she waits for the water to boil. Her eyes drift to the empty jar on the little table. All that glorious creme… gone. It is good that the girl has never snuck out into the snow before now, though it is surprising it has taken this long for her curiosity to get the better of her. Mama Tala glances at the girl, and sees that pain is still evident in the creases of her young forehead, despite her unconscious state. She watches a sheen work its way from the girl’s blistered hairline.
The fever rages and ebbs, and Mama Tala sometimes bundles the girl in furs, and other times airs her. The old woman dares not wipe the girl’s hands and feet, hoping the scraps of fabric still bind some salve to the wounds. Mama Tala constantly runs her bony fingers around the inside of the bone jar, seeking any last slip of cream to reapply to the girl’s poor face. Brenna does not wake for almost four days. When she does, her eyes open slowly without blinking, or wincing. “Mama Tala,” she whispers, her voice coarse. “I saw the white-rain. And you were right. It bit me.”
“I know, child.”
“Why does it do that?”
Mama Tala sighs, easing back in her rocker. “The white rain—the snow—does not bite everyone. Many encourage its fall, reveling in it like sunshine. Many celebrate its appearance with festivals and gatherings.”
Brenna frowned. “It was very pretty, until it started to hurt. But why does it bite people? And why only when it turns white?”
“I don’t rightly know, child. It does not bite all people. Only some.”
“What do you mean?” Brenna begins to rub the peeling blisters on her cheeks. “Who does it bite?”
Mama Tala takes a sip of her tea before answering. “I suppose it has really only ever been three. You are one. The others are your mother, and hers.”
Brenna’s eyes widen and her hand stills.
Swallowing another sip of tea, she begins. “The Gods cursed your family long ago. It began with your Great-Grandmother and Great-Grandfather.
“It was known throughout the land that your Great-Grandmother’s beauty was unparalleled. Boys and men all over the world traveled far and wide to win her heart. But deep down all sweet Asta wanted was the love of a boy in her village – Kjalarr. And she’d had it since they were children. Despite all the generous offers made to Asta’s father for her hand, your ancestor loved his daughter and indulged in her happiness instead, choosing to marry her off to Kjalarr for a meager exchange.
Soon, Asta became pregnant and prayed to the Goddess Freyja to give them a son – one who would grow strong to help his father with the work. It was then that the Goddess Skadi took notice of Kjalarr. Certain that he was the most beautiful being in our world, Skadi appeared to Kjalarr and invited him to her bed. When he refused, explaining his love for Asta and their unborn child, Skadi grew angry and jealous of Asta. She cursed the woman, and their child, and any children to come. To aid Her fellow Goddess, Freyja ensured Asta and her line would only ever have female children, and thus, the curse would never end.
The price for choosing true love, over the fleeting love of a winter Goddess, was a curse on his lovely bride, and on every female of her line to follow.”
“But there must be a way to break the curse!” Brenna exclaims, her eyes wide with fear. Mama Tala can see a spot where the snow had burned the white of the girl’s eye, for a furious red pulses from the dot.
Mama Tala smiles sadly. “Your ancestor’s have searched for two generations for such a thing. None has been found. Skadi was vicious in Her jealousy. And now that you are the last, there is no one to search with you, for I am too old and too busy taking care of you.”
“I can take care of myself,” Brenna crosses her arms, frowning.
“Oh, yes, I can see that!” Mama Tala tugs on the wrappings on Brenna’s feet.
“When I get bigger, Mama Tala, I will find a way to break the curse and free the women of my family!” Brenna announces, painfully shuffling herself upright. “Even if I must go to the Goddess Skadi Herself!”
“You have lofty ambitions to seek out the Gods Themselves,” Mama Tala grins, amusement sparkling in her eyes.
“I do!” the girl crows. “I will go deep into Jotunheim! Right into Her mountains in Thrymheim!
Mama Tala’s rusty chuckle fills the tiny cottage on the hill, as the snowstorm rages on around them.
Kelly Komm is a Canadian writer who loves winter. She has published a couple of young adult fantasy novels, and even won an award for one. She also spent several years making book trailers, reviewing books, and generally haunting the local writing community. When she isn’t bundled in layers of blankets with a book or her laptop, she is usually up to no good with her husband and mischievous two children. She can (very) periodically be found at kellykomm.blogspot.com.