The Gathering Has Begun…
Who Will Come?
Barely visible in the predawn light, a dim form stole from the back of the dyeshed. Wrapping a shawl tight against the wind, the figure shuffled along the snow-packed path through the frozen herb garden and opened the gate to climb the knoll behind Merchants’ Row.
At the top of the hill, the slowly blooming light revealed a woman, gray-haired and hunched—perhaps by age, but certainly against the wind—who scanned the snow-crusted roof-tops that spiraled from the center of the city like wagon-wheel spokes before she directed her gaze toward watchfires that shone from the garrison bordering the Northlands and beyond. In the far distance, a plume of dirty smoke rose from the Northland Glacier. She felt certain a new band of Lowland raiders had passed unseen through the blind side of the glacier during the night. The air smelled faintly of fish oil, the odor cast by the smudge torches borne by the Southern in-vaders. She wondered if they had yet breached the Crystal Caves, as they burned out the belly of the ancient glacier in their quest for water.
An acrid wind caught a corner of her handspun shawl, threatening to snatch it from her grasp. From the straggly line of buildings that wound along the base of the foothills beneath her, a wooden sign groaned on its hinges. She knew without looking that it was the sign above her own shop. The screech of iron on iron sounded ominous.
The old woman searched the gray horizon for answers and found none. She fingered the shawl that she called her magic wrap. Old and worn, even though made from sturdy mohair, it was lavender and plum tinged with black, hand-dyed in a colorway called “Aubergine,” a com-bination to which she had given her own name. This familiar shawl provided warmth and com-fort, as well as, sometimes, courage.
This blustery morning she felt nothing but sorrow. If she had just searched her heart twenty years ago, she could have prevented the Lowlanders’ desecration of the Middlelands. Be-fore the water in the great pot in the dyeshed had grown cold and the Middlefolk ceased to believe in her yarns, she could have prevented the damage. Yet she had been younger then, both strong and foolish.
She felt like a marionette whose strings had been cut. Smokey Jo was right: it was time to call the Twelve. It was past time. She knew not all of them would recognize the summoning fire in the sky. Of those who took notice, not all would heed its command. The circle of Twelve would remain broken, as it was before. Even broken, though, the circle might contain enough power to prevent the destruction of their world.
She reached a veined hand to the skin of her neck as she felt the pain afresh, as if the be-trayal had happened last night. How could she have chosen to trust that young woman, the one who on that last night of the Twelve ripped the amethyst circlet from her throat, then spurned the power of the group and fled South to the Lowlands, knowing none of them would follow her there? Then, coaxing some magic from the crystals she had stolen, she had learned to bend the Lowlanders’ greed to her will. As the years passed, rivers raged and whirlwinds struck and forests burned. Now a grown woman, and no longer merely a novice, this former apprentice had become Aubergine’s enemy. Known as the Dark Queen of the South, she had stripped the fields and forests, siphoned the rivers and lakes, and polluted the seas with the foul sludge that remained. Then the Lowlanders had been forced to invade the Northland for food and water. The old woman shook her head, unwilling to even think the name of her adversary.
A tiny, round gnome toiled up toward Aubergine from the path below, holding a tinder-box in hands warmed by felt mittens. Just last week they had rediscovered the silver container, shelved among dyestuffs in the back room, and glowing as it had not for decades.
Wheezing, the gnome gently lifted the delicate chest toward Aubergine. Dawn was be-ginning to send a hint of brightness above the horizon, but the old woman found she had no strength to open the box she now held. Made of seamless hammered metal, it had no lid.
The gnome clapped her hands together to warm them further against the morning chill. She coughed. “It’s time,” she said. “Quickly, before the dawn obscures the stars.”
The woman shook her head. “Poor little one, we are only two tired crones whose time has gone.” The glowing chest remained closed between them, like an unanswered question.
A loud crack startled them, just as the ground trembled under their feet, followed by an after jolt that jerked the tinderbox from Aubergine’s hands and cast it into the snow. Clutching each other for balance, the women looked north, unable to see the distant avalanche but not surprised.
Lowlanders had been mining the Northland Glacier for years, chipping away at ancient ice with sledgehammers, dumping frozen chunks into washes where they melted and flowed south. Now the entire border was unsafe. The Glacier Guard was useless, their ranks having dwindled to a few feeble oldsters playing dice outside the Burnt Holes. Even with fresh con-scripts to swell their ranks, they were no match for the raiders.
The wind stung tears into the corners of Aubergine’s eyes. She watched as Smokey Jo dug the glowing box out of the snow. Drops of water beaded across its top and ran down its sides, melted by the cold fire within.
The witch grasped her shawl tight against the buffeting wind, trying to muster enough strength to open the box. “Fire and ice,” she murmured, tasting the words that had the metallic flavor of war. Some would live, and some would die. But the Middlelands, caught between the Northland Guard and Lowland invaders, were about to change.
The gnome raised her dark eyes hopefully as her companion scanned the horizon, searching for signs of sun.
“Everyone knows,” Aubergine said. “Everyone knows to leave the glacier alone. Let it dwindle to the south as new snow packs it from the north, as nature intended.” Her eyes sought out the gnome’s. “When I was young, each year the glacier would disappear a little further down the rock-strewn valley, and fossikers would collect the slow treasure it released. And that was true and good.”
“Fossikers would pan the rivers,” Smokey Jo added, remembering. “Some would follow the trails of mineral-colored freshets that spilled each spring from the Crystal Lakes to pool be-hind the Teardrop Dam at the Top of the Notch. And that was true and good.”
A gust ripped the magic wrap from Aubergine’s grasp, leaving it held only by the amber stickpin at her throat. The shawl fluttered behind her like a cape. “The Lowlanders don’t care what they unleash from the frozen past.”
“That is why it is time,” the gnome repeated, gently.
Aubergine nodded. Summoning all the power she could muster, nothing like what she had known when all this began, she ran her fingers over the box until they remembered how to release its top.
The gnome leaned over to look closely at the fiery crystals inside. “I wish I could do that,” she whispered.
“You have other talents,” Aubergine said softly, her face rosy in the light. Was this enough? she asked herself. Could a broken-down band of aging women silence an army led by a traitor, formerly one of their own, who thought she could conquer all? “The day will dawn red as it has not for twenty years,” she said. “And then we must wait to see who will answer its call.”
Aubergine gathered the small handful of crystals in her bare hands. They glowed through the cracks formed between her fingers by her swollen knuckles. The colored shards felt strangely light and alive with cold fire. With a deep breath, she threw the jagged bits into the air. For a moment, nothing happened. Smokey Jo gazed skyward helplessly, and then looked up at Auber-gine in confusion.
“The spark’s gone out!” Smokey Jo cried. “The crystals have gone old and useless, like us!”
Aubergine’s breath caught in her throat. “No, little one,” she said. “No, they haven’t.” Both felt the warm rush of fire before they saw it. One by one, each blood-colored crystal burst over the horizon, wresting dawn from the day.
“Red sky comes morning. All take warning,” The gnome whispered, her face shining pink with each flash of light as she bent to lift the empty tinderbox from the snow.
“I doubt there are more than nine of us left,” Aubergine said, as they picked their way carefully down the icy hill to the yarn shop.
“Nine or all Twelve, we have to make ready.” Smokey Jo cheerily blew a frozen cloud into her mittens. “Maybe enough of us will come that we may yet circle the great pot and meld crystal to fiber as we once did.”
“It is time for a simmer,” Aubergine nodded.
“Luck of the dyepot,” the gnome said. “May we have the luck of the dyepot.”