Icy winds kicked up dead leaves. Peasants huddled around huge bonfires around the edge of the village. There was no doubt they’d be more comfortable in their homes. More than one longed to sit before a fire in the hearth with a hot cider. No, they were not jockeying to get close to the fire for warmth alone. Rather, the hope was to deter the demon spawn.
It began so long ago, no one was alive to say when. Even Elder Thomson shook his head at the question. His grandfather had spoken of the spawnfires in his own youth. May as well accept them. Just a part of life.
Children cuddled together within the circle of their families. The most frightened finally fell asleep, gripping their quilts closely. This was Alwen’s first year out of the children’s ring. She kept a sleeve held over her smile. Even at thirteen winters, she knew her pride would be out of place amid the fear, which seemed to have a life of its own.
Alwen puzzled at the fear. She always had, even as a small child when the older children told spawn stories. Of course, no one told spawn stories around the spawnfires. Some people never told them at all, wouldn’t even hear tell of the spawn. They would spit on the ground and trace a crescent between their brows before bustling away. Alwen hid her smile when that happened, too.
She stood apart from the others. Stood apart in crowds, in her family and in her thoughts. Not like Moony Michaels, whom everyone knew was daft as a loon. It was a quiet thing, this standing apart. Alwen didn’t think others noticed. She never felt distressed or lonely by it. When she listened, she heard the whispers in her heart. She was never alone. The thought warmed her in a way the spawnfire could not.
The stink of fear was thicker in the ring of people standing over the children, standing around the spawnfire. Occasionally, a woman would moan piteously. Others would jerk at the slightest noise. Some furtively glanced to the dark sky or around into the fields. They hunched more tightly against the cold and unknown. Alwen gazed at the stars, holding her cloak so the others wouldn’t see. Pinpricks of light, sparks from the spawnfires rising and dancing in the darkness.
When the wind began, it was natural for everyone to crowd closer to the fire, to grip the sleeve of a family member. Alwen was pushed forward, nearly stumbling over her little brother asleep in the children’s ring. She threaded her way to the back, murmuring for her Mama and Papa, whom she knew were on the other side of the circle. People made room for her but she had to be quick. No one wanted to leave an opening for the demon spawn.
As the circle closed in, her departure was unremarked. The villagers as one trembled. They were tunnel visioned, knowing the time was near. Alwen stealthily made her way to the shadows of a large oak tree nearby. There she relaxed and breathed deeply of cooler air, air not as pungent with fright. As she listened in the quiet, the voices in her heart became more than a dim grouping of friendly mumbles. No words came to her. Not for the first time, she thought they might speak different words for things, like the people from the South.
The wind rose. It wrapped itself in a dance around the circle. Scared people huddled away from it, toward the light of the huge fire. Sparks rose from the fire to join the stars in the night sky. Women wailed, men swore and children fussed at being awakened.
The wind was calm and smooth as it swirled around Alwen. It carried voices with soft, sibilant words exactly like those in her heart. She felt their question. Without hesitation, she silently answered it. A gust of wind lifted the hood of her cloak and her hair fell free. The strong breeze lifted her body. High above the ring of her former neighbors, she was carried in a lazy spiral over their heads and above the spawnfire.
Alwen was apart from the cries of grief and fear. No longer did she stand apart from her companions. No one knew when the stories had been perverted. Demon spawn? No, these shadow creatures were a part of her, as she was of them. She gave her old family and their friends a beatific smile they would never see. Alwen rose, a spark reunited with kin, through a fold in the starry sky.
© 2010 Jessica Rosen
This story was begun using a modified and expanded #storystarters written some time ago by @melissamurphy2, one of the creative writers who stocks the hashtag full of great bits of inspiration.