Ignore the stirrings of war. Let the carriage to a royal ball wait. There is a story to be told: of a starless night, a mother and her sick son, and a mortal who falls in love with the snow god, and will do anything to have her…
Read “Bridge of Snow,” which is set in the world of Rutkoski's newest novel The Winner's Curse.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Mac Kids editor Janine O’Malley.
The boy was sick.
It wasn’t that, so much, that worried his mother. He was often sick, and she had grown used to that fever-dazzled quality to his eyes. Sometimes she secretly enjoyed his illness, once the fever had broken and the worry was past. She got to keep him all to herself. His tutors were sent away. His limbs, heavy with sleepiness, seemed ironically healthier than usual—solid, with a good weight. He was a spindly creature. Tall for his age. Large eyed, bony. She thought he would grow up handsome.
His father disagreed. The disagreement was matter-of-fact, even fond: an excuse for him to praise the boy’s bookish ways. “Not handsome,” her husband would say when they were alone in her rooms and the fire burned low. “Clever.”
“Can he not be both?”
“Gods, I hope not. One of those is enough.”
She sighed, now, remembering it. She sat by her son’s bedside, careful not to crease her gown. She stretched an arm across a pillow and the boy, turning a page, nestled into her. He didn’t look up from his book. His shoulders were rigid, his face tight. Whatever simmered in him wasn’t fever.
She stroked his dark hair. “It’s almost time. The carriage is waiting.”
“A little longer.”
Her arm ached from the awkward position and the boy’s weight. She shifted.
“Don’t go,” he said.
“Arin. I must.”
He jerked away. “Why? Just because Anireh wants you to? All she wants is to gobble up the prince. She’s a spider.”
“I’m not sure that spiders gobble.”
He slammed his book shut. “A fox, then. A mean, sneaky fox.”
“This ball is important to your sister. It’s important that your father and I attend it with her, and Nurse will take good care of you while we’re gone.” Yet she didn’t like to leave Arin. It was his fury, grasped tight and trembling, that made her reluctant, not the sickness, which had almost run its course. “What did your sister do?”
He rolled over and buried his face in a pillow. “Nothing,” came the muffled answer.
“If you tell me, I will tell you something.”
He shifted so that one gray eye peered at her over the pillow’s snowy slopes. “What kind of something?”
He looked at her fully now. “A secret . . . and a story?”
“Little trickster. You hope to make me forget the ball with tale-telling. What will the royal family think if I am not there? You don’t need a story. You have your book.” But then she looked more carefully at what he’d been reading, and frowned. “Out with it,” she said more sternly than she had intended. “What did Anireh do?”
“She said she was there when I was born.”
“Yes.” Her daughter was a full ten years older than him—a young woman now.
“She said,” Arin whispered, “that I was born in the year of death. That you waited for months to name me so that my nameday would be in a different god’s year.”
“Well.” She fiddled with an emerald earring. “Yes. All parents did the same that year.” Except perhaps, she supposed, for a few who thought that being born under death’s sign would make their children fit for war one day. But who—she shuddered—would want that? “How silly to fret over this, Arin. It’s the name that matters, not the birth.” Yet he had gone nameless for two full seasons. He had been born in the peak of death’s sign.
She looked away from the boy’s pale face.
“Anireh said that I was born a skeleton.”
Her gaze snapped back. “What?”
“She said I came out all bones. My knuckles looked like pearls.”
Now it was she who had to hide her anger.
“Anireh said you prayed to the gods to give me flesh,” he continued, “and they did—but not enough. That’s why I’m so skinny.”
“Sweet child, that’s not true.”
“I know it’s not true!” But Arin’s gray eyes were shiny with fear, and something in him saw that she had seen this. That lurking anger from before suddenly barreled through his fear, shoved it aside. “I hate her.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Yes,” he said, “I do!”
“Shh. Your throat’s raw already from the fever. Do you want to lose your voice?”
He gulped. He choked on the sucked-in air. Tears spilled down his cheeks. “I hate her,” he said hoarsely.
She wasn’t feeling kindly toward her firstborn either. To tell a child such frightening nonsense! “Let the carriage wait. You shall have your story as well as your secret.”
Tears made his lashes spiky, his eyes luminous. “Both?”
“Both,” she assured him. She picked up his book from where it lay on the bed. It was written in another language—one she didn’t like. “I can certainly offer you something better than this.”
He had stopped crying. “I like that.”
“What could you possibly like about a Valorian book?”
“Valorians are interesting. They’re different.”
“Indeed they are.” It stirred a dread in her, simply to see the printed language stamped on the pages. She had never been to Valoria, but everyone knew what people from that country were like: irreligious, brutish. Bloody-minded. Why, even the women took up arms. She could not imagine it. And there had been rumors . . .
She set the book aside. “A story, then.”
Arin was calm now. He lifted a hand to touch the back of hers in thanks, then curled his fingers into hers. She cherished that little warmth. It nested in her palm like a bird. “Tell me how the stars were made,” he said.
“You are too young for that tale.”
He pulled her hand from hers. “I’ve had eight namedays.”
“I know the story already, Amma. I just want to hear it in your voice.” When she hesitated, he said, “Did you know that Valorians say the stars are sparks shot from the hooves of galloping warhorses?”
The words made her own heart race. Yet her country had no reason to fear Valoria. A mountain range stood between Herran and Valoria. The rest of Herran was surrounded by water, and the Herrani ruled the seas. We are safe, she thought.
“I hear that Valorians eat gold,” the boy said.
“No, of course not.” But did they? She wasn’t sure to what lengths their barbarism went. Eating gold seemed perfectly benign compared to the massacre in the southern isles. The Valorians had waded in blood, she’d heard. Those they didn’t kill, they enslaved.
She wondered how much Arin knew about the wars beyond Herran’s borders.
“Now, you will be quiet,” she said, “and you will listen. No interruptions.”
He snuggled down, easy now. “All right.”
“There was a young man, a goatherd, who lived in the mountains. His days were filled with bells and the scattering sound of goat hooves on loose rock. Nights were darker then than they are now—starless, lightless, save for the moon that hung like a jewel on the chilled black silk of the sky. He was alone. His heart was still. He remembered each god in his prayers.
“He hadn’t always been alone. The days grew shorter, colder. Heavy gray clouds tore themselves into shreds on the mountaintops. Had he left behind the people he loved, or had they left him? No one knows. But he remembered them in the fading warmth of autumn. He heard voices ringing in the first frozen wind of winter. He told himself they were goats’ bells. Maybe they were.” She looked at her boy. He knew her weakness for storytelling. And it was, after all, only a story. Still, she wished he had chosen a happier one.
“Go on,” he said.
“He was poor. His shoes were thin. But he was hardier than he looked, and he had a gift. In the icy pink mornings, he would select a charred stick from the dead fire. He would go outside where the light was best. Sometimes he used the wall of his hut; he had no paper. And sometimes he used a flat stretch of rock in the cliff, letting its texture give dimension to his charcoal images. He drew. Fingers black, he sketched his memories, he shaded the lost faces, he rubbed a line with his smallest finger to soften what he had known.
“The goats milled about him. There was no one to see what he drew.
“But the snow saw. Winter’s first snow came. It lay a white palm on the charcoaled stone. It drifted over his hut. It eddied at the door as if curious, and wondering whether more drawings were hidden inside.
“The goatherd’s skin prickled. Perhaps he should stay indoors.
“He didn’t. He led the goats. He drew. And the snow came for him.
“In those days, the gods walked among us. The goatherd knew her for what she was. How could he not? She was silver haired. Clear ice eyes. Faintly blue lips. The air around her seemed to chime. It was the god of snow.”
Arin said, “You forgot something.”
She hadn’t. Slowly, she said, “The god smiled, and showed her pointed, sharp, crystal teeth.”
“I’m not scared,” said Arin.
But how to tell her son the rest? The way the god silently followed the goatherd, so close that his shoulders grew frost? He drew for the snow god, whose frozen diamond tears fell at the sight of his images and rang against the rock. Every morning, he looked for her. He began to love the chattering of his teeth. When she appeared, the air sheered and sharpened. It became hard to breathe. Still, he longed for that painful purity.
When she was not there, he remembered the goats. He probably smelled like them. Was warm and stupid, like them.
Yet one day she touched him. It was a cold so cold it burned. It locked his jaw.
She drew back, and tried again. This time, it was all soft hushes, the sort of snow that changes the world by claiming it. A pillowing snow. It feathered down. She layered herself on him.
The burning cold came again. He begged for her bite.
She left him. It was that or murder him, so he was alone again with his goats and his fire-black sticks and the smudged walls of his mountainside hovel.
“They became friends,” the mother said finally.
“Not friends.” Arin was reproachful.
The boy read beyond his age, that much was clear. She frowned, but said only, “He didn’t see the god again. He saw what most mortals saw: snowflakes, brilliant in their white geometry. He watched the snow by day, he watched it by night . . . when he could. The moon was waning. Then came a night when it vanished altogether. The night was as black as snow is white. He could see nothing. I wish I could tell you, Arin, that he said his prayers as always, remembering each one, but that night he neglected the god of the moon.
“He woke to the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow outside his hut. He knew it wasn’t his god—she moved hissingly, or was silent—but any stranger on this mountain was strange indeed, so he stepped through his door to see.
“The newcomer was a man—or so it seemed. The goatherd wasn’t sure, suddenly, what he beheld, unless it was seeming itself. The visitor had black eyes—no, silver, no, yellow, or was that a glowering orange? Was he shrunken, or enormous—and wasn’t he, after all, a she?
“The goatherd blinked, and although he didn’t recognize who stood before him, he at least understood what kind of visitor had come to call.
“‘You want to be with my sister,’ said the god.
“The young man flushed.
“‘No, don’t be shy,’ said the god. ‘She wants what you want. And I can make it happen.’
“The gods do not lie. But the goatherd shook his head. ‘Impossible.’
“Mortal, what do you know? You’re too far from the realm of the gods down here. You need a bridge to go up into the sky. The air’s different there. You would be different up there. More like us. I can build that bridge for you. All you have to do is say yes.’
“Wary, the goatherd said, ‘If I took that bridge, would it kill me? Would I live?’
“The god grinned. ‘You’d live forever.’
“The young man said yes. He would have said yes anyway, he would have chosen death and snow together, but he had been raised to know that you do not enter into an agreement with the gods without asking the right questions.
“He should have asked more.
“‘We’ll meet again tonight,’ the god said, ‘and build the bridge together.’
“‘Tonight?’ It seemed terribly far away.
“‘I work best at night.’
“You must understand, it wasn’t that the young man was a fool. He had a lively mind, sensitive to details, and if the conversation had been about any other matter than his lost god, he would have been suspicious. But we don’t think too well when we want too much. He forgot that hole in the fabric of his prayers the night before. It didn’t occur to him that such a hole might widen, and stretch, and become large enough for him to fall through.
“As agreed, he met the strange god that night. Although there was still no moon in the sky, he had no trouble seeing. The god glowed.” In some versions of the tale, the god had the youth strip naked on the frozen mountain, coyly demanded one kiss, and was refused. “The god touched the young man’s brow. In that last moment, he suddenly understood that he had been bargaining with the moon. He saw that he had wrought his own doom. But there was nothing he could do.
“He began to grow. His bones screamed. His joints popped. Muscle stretched and tore and disintegrated. He arched into the darkness. The mountains dwindled below. He left his flesh behind. It was as the moon god had promised: he was thrust up into the realm of the gods . . . but he himself was the bridge. He spanned the night sky.
“It is true, for gods as well as mortals, that it is impossible to love a bridge. The snow god came, walked the length of him, and wept. Her tears fell and froze. They scattered the sky, piercingly bright. They fell in patterns, in the images he had drawn for her. That is why we see constellations. The stars show his memories, which became hers. We still see them when we look up into the night at a black bridge covered with snow.”
Arin was quiet. His expression was unreadable. She wondered why he had asked for this tale. His eyes seemed older than he was, but his hand younger as he reached to touch her satin sleeve. He played with the fabric, watching it dimple and shine. She realized that she had, after all, forgotten the ball and the waiting carriage.
It was time to leave. She kissed him.
“Will Anireh marry the prince?” Arin asked.
She thought that now she understood his interest in the story. “I don’t know.”
“She’d go away and live with him.”
“Yes. Arin, the sibling gods can be cruel to each other. Is that why you asked for the story of snow and her brother-sister moon? Anireh teases you. She can be thoughtless. But she loves you. She held you so dearly when you were a baby. Sometimes she refused to give you back to me.”
His troubled gaze fell. Softly, he said, “I don’t want her to go.”
She smoothed his hair off his brow and said gentle things, the right things, and would have left then to attend the royal ball with an easier heart, but he reached for her wrist. He held it, his hand a soft bracelet.
“Amma . . . the goatherd wasn’t bad, was he?”
“But he was punished.”
Lightly, she said, “Well, all boys must remember their prayers, mustn’t they?”
“What if I do, but offend a god another way?”
“Children cannot offend the gods.”
His eyes were so wide she could see the silvery rims of them clear round. He said, “I was born in death’s year, but I wasn’t given to him. What if he’s offended?”
She suddenly realized the full scope of his fascination with the tale. “No, Arin. The rules are clear. I had the right to name you whenever I liked.”
“What if I’m his no matter when you named me?”
“What if you are, and it means that he holds you in his hand and would let no one harm you?”
For a moment, he was silent. He muttered, “I’m afraid to die.”
“You won’t.” She made her voice cheerful, brisk. Her son felt things too deeply, was tender to the core. It worried her. She shouldn’t have told that story. “Arin, don’t you want your secret?”
He smiled a little. “Yes.”
She had meant to tell him that the cook’s cat had had kittens. But something in his tentative smile caught at her heart, and she leaned to whisper in his ear. She said what no mother should say, yet it was the truth. Months later, when a Valorian dagger pressed into her throat, and there was a moment before the final push, she thought of it, and was glad she had spoken. “I love you best,” she said.
She rested her hand on his warm forehead and said the blessing for dreams. She kissed him one more time, and went away.
“Bridge of Snow” copyright © 2014 by Marie Rutkoski
Art copyright © 2014 by Pascal Campion